French Forces Disclose Details Of Kabul Evacuation Effort

Credit: Airbus

LYON, France–Experience, adaptation skills and cooperation with allies as well as reliable and efficient aircraft made Operation Agapan a success, enabling 2,800 people to leave Afghanistan on short notice, French military officials say.

Some 2,600 Afghans, in addition to 100 French citizens and dozens of other Europeans, were flown out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). The effort started just after the Taliban seized the country’s capital on Aug. 15. France’s contribution to the airlift began Aug. 16 and ended Aug. 27, after 26 roundtrips performed by Airbus A400Ms and Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules.

The aircraft were charged with the “front loop,” to Kabul from France’s Al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi, staff spokesman Col. Pascal Ianni said. A combined 10 military transports, including three A400Ms, flew from France to participate. The first two, one A400M and one C-130, were dispatched the night of Aug. 15-16.

The “back loop” consisted of flying the evacuees to France from Al-Dhafra.

America’s longest war ended Aug. 30. The final C-17 took off from HKIA just before midnight local time, carrying out the last U.S. troops and diplomatic leaders.

The enclave in the UAE gave the French forces “strategic depth,” says Commodore Jacques Fayard, commander of the French forces in the country. Flying to Kabul nevertheless took 3 1/2 to 4 hr., which contributed to the organizational challenge. Moreover, the last French soldier left Afghanistan in 2014, meaning little help could be found in the country. Some 100 personnel were therefore flown to Kabul, where they secured an area close to the airport’s North gate.

The people who the French aircraft flew out of Kabul had been designated by the French embassy.

The UAE helped with local troop transportation in Abu Dhabi. U.S. forces assisted with threat assessment, thanks to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Al Oudeid, Qatar. U.S. tactical controllers replaced civil Afghan air traffic controllers, who had fled.

“This was a degraded air traffic control environment,” says Wing Cmdr. Nicolas, whose last name was not provided. An A400M pilot, he had to cope with the 30-min. time slot that local U.S. military authorities were providing. Boarding took place with the engines running. It sometimes took up to 45 min., which the U.S. allies allowed, he says. Three slots per day were available.

One French A400M took off with 266 passengers instead of the normal seating capacity of 110. The procedure was well-defined. At the French Air and Space Force’s main base for transports, in Orleans, crews created methods to fly more than 300 passengers in an A400M.

Depending on the number, several people can be regrouped on a single seat and use one belt. Above 200 people, straps can be used in a rough-and-ready manner to secure passengers on the floor, Nicolas says. The techniques were developed after Hurricane Irma devastated the French Caribbean islands in 2017 and French transport crews were caught off guard.

Due to their higher payload and volume capacity, the A400Ms performed three quarters of the flights to Kabul.

Another challenge was the airport’s geographical situation, at an altitude of almost 6,000 ft. and surrounded by mountains. Aircraft performance specialists prepared crews for the tricky takeoff phase. They defined a takeoff procedure for the aircraft to be able to carry on and fly to Abu Dhabi in case of an engine failure.

The A400M’s automated self-protection system activated once, launching decoy flares shortly after takeoff. The suspected ground-to-air missile threat is still being investigated, Nicolas says.

As for the back loop to Paris from Al-Dhafra, the French Air and Space Force used an Airbus A310 and then multirole Airbus A330s for a total of 16 flights. Praising the new aircraft involved for their performance and dependability, especially the A400Ms and A330s, Fayard expressed doubt that French forces would have been successful with such an endeavor five years ago.

Chaos was avoided at Al-Dhafra air base despite the high number of evacuees. Operation Apagan started with a three-day, 160-person target and ended after 13 days and 2,800 people flown, Fayard said. Meanwhile, normal operations, including Rafale sorties, continued at Al-Dhafra.

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews.