With the handover of the first examples of the NH90 Caiman support and Eurocopter Tiger HAD attack helicopters to an operational unit, the aviation wing of the French army has begun its long-awaited modernization effort.

Three NH90 tactical transport helicopters and two Eurocopter EC665 Tiger HADs have been delivered to the 1st Combat Helicopter Regiment based at Phalsbourg, near Strasbourg, and over the next few months crews will hone their operational capabilities in readiness for potential deployed operations by July 2014.

The introduction of the two types marks a major change for the army air wing, which remains reliant on the 1960s-vintage Aerospatiale-built SA330 Puma and various versions of the SA342 Gazelle. Both types have been heavily used in recent French theaters, including Mali during Operation Serval and in the ongoing Operation Sangaris, also in the Central African Republic.

The service's air division has enjoyed some modernization in recent years. The introduction of the EC665 Tiger HAP gave it a taste of a dedicated attack-helicopter platform, but the HAP version is limited by its inability to carry precision-guided munitions, which means the aircraft had only the 30-mm cannon as its primary weapon in Afghanistan and Mali. Limited numbers of the EC725 Caracal and AS532 Cougar are also in service to back up the aging Pumas, but these were mainly meant to support special operations forces.

The introduction of the Tiger HAD, however, provides the service with AGM-114 Hellfire missile capability, allowing commanders to start phasing out Gazelles fitted with the venerable MBDA HOT long-range anti-tank missiles. While the NH90 is a considerably more capable aircraft than its predecessors, it is significantly more complex.

As part of the type's introduction, the army air corps, jointly with the navy—which operates the naval NH90 Caiman Marine variant—have opened a training facility, CFIA, at Le Luc, in southeastern France, to bring crews up-to-speed on the type.

The first crews destined for the NH90 have been cherry-picked from other types, but the air branch plans to begin instructing ab initio pilots at a joint training center at Dax, near the Pyrenees, in 2015. Despite the helicopter being inducted into the inventory back in 2005, Tiger pilots are still being cross-trained from other types. This is slated to change in 2014, when the first ab initio crews will enter the joint French-German Tiger training school at Le Luc.

“The NH90 training here at Le Luc is a model for how we will do things in the future,” explains Brig. Gen. Marc Demier, commander of army air corps helicopter training.

CFIA introduces the idea of training both aircrews and engineers on the same site, unlike for the Tiger, for which aircrews are trained at Le Luc while engineers and mechanics receive instruction at Fassburg, Germany. Simulators are also heavily used; roughly 70% of the training flying hours for the type will be completed in simulator facilities at CFIA, a 50% increase over the simulator hours logged by Tiger pilots.

Several other European NH90 operators have expressed an interest in the facilities, including Spain and Belgium. Spain already has instructors at Le Luc to train pilots on the Tiger, although other nations using CFIA would have to supply their own aircraft. The French army air wing will have eight aircraft at the school to support all branches of the service. That number has temporarily dropped, with the move of three aircraft to the 1st Combat Helicopter Regiment, but new deliveries to the army air division will boost the numbers in the coming months.

The army air wing is buying 68 NH90s in the tactical transport configuration, which was ordered in two batches of 34. These will replace the majority of the SA330 Pumas still in operation, although the defense ministry is hoping to upgrade approximately 30 with modernized avionics to keep the type in operational service until at least 2025.

The defense ministry already has begun modernizing the fleet of AS532 Cougars with a new avionics suite and autopilot as well as electro-optical systems. Several of these aircraft, known as the Cougar “Renove,” began reentering service in 2012.

The government's military program law calls for the introduction of 38 Caimans for the army air sector between 2014-20, along with 16 Tigers. Paris intends to reduce its buy of 80 Tigers to 60 during the course of the program law, though Eurocopter will be partially compensated with more conversions of the helicopters from HAP to HAD configuration. The reduction in fleet size may also result in a corresponding reduction in the number of aircrews being trained and in roughly 10% fewer annual flight hours in the coming years.