In May, the two Transall C-160G “Gabriel” were withdrawn from French Air Force, three years ahead of schedule, while they were still used by the 1/54 “Dunkirk” Airborne Electronic Squadron to collect intelligence of electromagnetic origin [ROEM] in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions. The withdrawal comes without waiting for three Dassault Aviation Falcon 8X Archange meant to replace them.
Before entering service towards the end of the 1980s, the two C-160s were upgraded and outfitted with Thales mission equipment.
They took part in the 1991 Gulf War and all subsequent French foreign missions. In recent years, they have engaged the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, as well as the IS and Al Qaeda in the Sahel. They also frequently operate near Russia.
In the current context, the decision is surprising, even though the Air & Space Force [AAE] is not short of ROEM assets. The ASTAC (Analyzer of TACtic Signals) is implemented by the Mirage 2000D, the two light surveillance and intelligence aircraft [ALSR] “VADOR” (Airborne Designation, Observation and Reconnaissance Vector) and the ESM (Electronic Support Measures) suite of the four E-3F AWACS.
And it will soon be able to fly its MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) MQ-9 Reaper drones with a “ROEM” (renseignement électro-magnétique / electromagnetic intelligence) charge and rely on the three CERES [Capacity of Listening and Space Electromagnetic Intelligence] satellites, put into orbit in November 2021.
However, the ROEM capacity needs to remain significant and maintain the skills of the 1/54 Dunkerque squadron specialists until the Falcon Archanges are planned, at best, for 2026.
AAE’s Vice Chief, Major General Frédéric Parisot, has taken responsibility for the decision to no longer fly the C-160G.
As per Gen Parisot, Transalls cost AAE more than 80 million euros per year, for an availability of 20%. So rather than make cuts elsewhere, he has chosen to withdraw them from service,” he said during a hearing at the National Assembly on July 20.
However, General Parisot said AAE is committed to maintaining the teams’ know-how. Also, he said, some specialists have been assigned to ALSR, which benefits from their skills in ‘Communications Intelligence’ [COMINT] – listening to radios and telephones. Finally, others – a handful – joined the Mont-de-Marsan Center of Military Air Expertise [CEAM] and the “Archange” brand team to “do the tiling with Archange, a formidable machine, during its commissioning in 2026,” he explained.
However, the need for an aircraft with high-performance sensors remains. Hence they plan to rent one, said the official speaking to the magazine Air&Cosmos.
Asked about this project, General Parisot gave some details. He told the magazine AAE had launched a call for tenders to have an interim capacity. It would be a Saab 340 type aircraft, a twin-engine turboprop, “to carry out missions of seven to eight hours,” and “its very new generation sensors will give AAE a very interesting interim capacity. In addition, General Parisot said the rental would allow AAE to change quickly with the service provider if better quality sensors arrive on the market, which is very important. Although he did not reveal the service provider, Sweden has decided to replace its Saab 340 AEW-300 with Saab GlobalEye.
In addition, the Vice Chief of the AAE confirmed that the CERES satellites would be fully operational “at the end of the summer”. Passing over the same point every hour and a half, they will make it possible to “very regularly have data”, he underlined.
Note that the AAE is not the only one looking for an aircraft dedicated to the intelligence of electromagnetic origin. Last week, Israel Aerospace Industries said it had signed a contract worth more than 200 million euros to deliver such a device to a “NATO member country”, which was not specified. The solutions offered by the Israeli group are generally based on the Gulfstream 550.
Falcon 8X Archange
The French Defense Procurement Agency (DGA) ordered the Archange airborne strategic intelligence programme on December 30, 2019, which includes three Dassault Aviation Falcon 8X aircraft outfitted with Thales’ new-generation payload CUGE (universal electronic warfare capability).
For the first time, these new technologies will allow the system to collect and analyse radar and radar signals simultaneously, thanks to Thales’s multi-polarisation antennas and the use of its artificial intelligence technologies to automate data processing.
The information gathered by monitoring and intelligence specialists will subsequently be analysed and supplied into armed forces databases by the systems. The programme also features a training platform on the ground.
The Falcon 8X trijet is the newest member of the Falcon family. The business jet variant can travel 12,000 km with eight passengers and three crew members. It has computerised flight controls derived from Dassault Aviation’s expertise with the Mirage 2000 and Rafale. It has an EASY digital flight deck and the FalconEye combined vision system (CVS).