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A French Invasion


A major air and sea exercise just off the coast of Scotland, has prompted something of a French invasion of the U.K.

Joint Warrior is one of the largest annual exercises held in Europe. Conducted twice a year, the first one, dubbed JW13-1, is shaping up to be quite a spectacle with no less than 40 naval vessels and several dozen aircraft and helicopters joining in. Maritime patrol aircraft from Canada and the U.S. have been scouring the waters of the North Sea, joined by a lone P-3 Orion from Brazil. Then there is a land component with major assault landings planned.

But it’s perhaps the French contingent that is the most impressive. On top of the Atlantique 2s joining the miscellany of Orions, a scaled back, but none the less impressive carrier air wing has been formed at RAF Leuchars. This land-based Charles de Gaulle is now home to eight Dassault Super Etendards, seven Dassault Rafale Ms and a single E-2 Hawkeye.

At sea are several French vessels and on land several hundred French troops will work alongside their British colleagues in an assault on West Freugh airfield in Southern Scotland next week, supported by French helicopters.

Credit: Tony Osborne - Aviation Week

Meanwhile down south, the French Army Air Corps have been conducting something of a nationwide tour. For the first time in a decade a large contingent of French Army helicopters from the 3rd Combat Helicopter Regiment have deployed to the U.K. The six SA342 Gazelles and a single, SA330 Puma have been conducting navigation training to various locations around the U.K. and even conducted a transit of London’s heli-lanes.

The huge French deployment efforts are another sign of the increasingly close co-operation between the defense ministries of the U.K. and France under the Lancaster House treaties signed in November 2010.

Aviation Week was allowed a brief visit to see the French crews taking part in the helicopter deployment at the British Army Air Corps Aviation Centre at Middle Wallop in Hampshire.

Lt Col Jacques Minart, who is the French Army Air Corps’s (ALAT) liaison officer to the British Army Air Corps said that closer ties are being made between the two organisations but the way they worked would be fundamentally different. In France, support helicopters for the battlefield are all provided by the Army, while in the U.K. they are supplied by all three services through a single helicopter command.

But Minart said both services were learning from each other and that one day, training might allow harmonisation between between the helicopter forces of the two countries so that British troops can fly on French helicopters and vice-versa. 

The diminutive Gazelle is still the backbone of the French helicopter forces providing an anti-tank and helicopter escort capability using the HOT and Mistral missile respectively. Others are fitted with the Viviane electro-optical sight. Gazelles will be replaced in two helicopter regiments by the Eurocopter EC665 Tiger, the third regiment will retain its Gazelles for several years to come, until a new armed utility helicopter can be purchased. However it is unclear when or if that program will begin.

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