The French army has formally transferred its first NH90 utility helicopters and Tiger HAD attack helicopters to an operational unit.

Three NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopters (TTH), and two Eurocopter EC665 Tiger HADs have been handed over to the 1st Combat Helicopter Regiment (1st RHC) based at Phalsbourg, near Strasbourg. The transfer marks the beginning of a major re-equipment program and modernization of the French army air corps, which still remains heavily reliant on the 1960s-vintage SA330 Puma and the SA342 Gazelle.

The aircraft were handed over to the unit in a ceremony at the French army air corps’ training base at Le Luc near Toulon on Dec. 12. Le Luc is home to a new NH90 training school, CFIA, which at full strength will operate with eight aircraft. The CFIA school will train both army and navy aircrews to fly the aircraft, which is known as Caiman in French army service, and as the Caiman Marine in navy operation.

Three of the current CFIA fleet of NH90s have been handed over to the 1st RHC in readiness for further training, and should be available for deployed operations in July 2014. The Tiger HAD is the latest version of the Tiger to enter service with the French army; it is fitted with upgraded MTU-Turbomeca MTR390-E turboshafts and can be equipped with the AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile.

Until now, the French army had been using the Tiger HAP, which does not have the ability to deliver precision-guided munitions, only unguided rockets and gunfire. The first Tiger HADs were delivered to Le Luc earlier this year so that pilots could begin conversion to the type. Senior officers describe conversion from HAP to HAD as relatively straightforward. All Tiger crews are trained on the HAP first, and then take a two-week course to learn about using the Hellfire.

The French army plans to buy 68 NH90s in the TTH configuration. These will replace the majority of the SA330 Pumas still operational, although the defense ministry is hoping to upgrade around 30 of these to retain them in operational service until 2025 or beyond. The NH90s were ordered in two batches of 34, with the defense ministry confirming the second batch at the Paris air show in June.

The French army is in discussions with several other European operators of the NH90 to use the CFIA facilities at Le Luc, including Spain and Belgium. Although those countries would have to supply their own aircraft, their aircrews and maintenance personnel would have access to the simulators and NH90 maintenance trainers at the school.