The availability of French army helicopters still problematic

The deputy for Haute-Marnes, François Cornut-Gentille, who was also mayor of the town of Saint-Dizier welcoming the BA113 and its 3 squadrons of Rafale of the Air Force, has for many years been one of the rare deputies familiar with defense issues. Rapporteur of the army budget to the finance committee, he questioned the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, on the evolution of the availability and maintenance in operational condition of some 448 helicopters in service in the French armies.

Since taking office, the latter has taken action aimed at improving this availability, which we know has been very insufficient for several years. Unfortunately, in 2018, the situation, although it has slightly improved, is still very far from being satisfactory, as shown in the table below, transmitted in response to Mr. Cornut Gentille's request.

TypeNb
of devices
to 31 / 12 / 17
Nb
of devices
to 21 / 12 / 18
Available (%)
in 2017.
Available (%)
in 2018.
Age
way
au
31/12/2018
Cost of
maintenance
of the fleet
(€m)

Alouette III

19

18

39,7

44,7

45,1

14,3

Gazelle

99

89

49,2

46,2

33,1

37,2

Fennec

58

58

40,1

38,65

26,7

24,1

Tiger PAH

38

37

23

28,1

9,4

90,1
(+HAD)

Tiger HAD

24

29

34

30,2

3,1

Cougar

26

26

23,6

27

28,2

43,1

Puma and Super Puma

88

76

32,9

31,6

43,4

81,0

EC 725 Caracal

18

18

26,5

40

12,9

72,8

Dolphin

11

11

51,9

43,5

31,6

26,8
(+ Panther)

Panther

16

16

39,6

39,9

23,4

Lynx

18

15

18,8

15,5

38,2

17,7

NH90NFH

19

22

34,2

35,5

4,6

81,2

NH90 TTH

25

33

36,1

30,4

3,2
74,0

It is remarkable to note that modern helicopters, such as the Tiger HAP/HAD, and the NH90 NFH/TTH, have an average availability of less than 1 in 3 helicopters in the fleet. The Chiefs of Staff of the Army and the Navy have, in this regard, made known their exasperation, whether regarding the lack of maturity of the NH90 which requires 30 hours of work per hour of flight, or the Tiger, whose logistics chain remains very poor. Note that this failure was also noticed by Australia, the only export customer of the European aircraft, which considered a premature withdrawal of the fleet due to the lack of responsiveness of manufacturers in terms of spare parts.

The French Navy uses NH90 helicopters equipped with Flash sonar for anti-submarine warfare Defense News | Construction of Military Helicopters | France
The French Navy actually only has 7,5 NH90s to rig its anti-submarine warfare frigates.

Beyond the technological and financial aspects, this low availability obviously poses significant operational problems, because only 160 devices are actually available out of the 448 in the fleet. Thus, the French Navy only has on average 7,5 NH90s and 3 Lynx, or 10,5 helicopters capable of carrying out anti-submarine warfare missions. Deducting the devices essential for training and training, it therefore does not have enough helicopters to rig its anti-submarine warfare frigates, which each spend more than 160 days at sea each year. For the Army, the 80 helicopters available, including 30 gazelles which are very vulnerable today, only allow 2 Combat Helicopter Regiments out of the 3 existing ones to be rigged, using all of the rotary wings available.

Finally, note that the chosen indicator, namely the average annual availability of devices, is not very effective, since a drop in operational activity, at the end of an OPEX, for example, would be enough to make it increase, without resolving the problem of the impact of maintenance per flight hour of the aircraft. A new indicator, taking into consideration not only the availability, but the actual activity of the rotary wings, would, as such, be much more effective, and shed light on the actions to be taken.

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