French Air Force Studying Chinook Buy, Caracal Replacement

Credit: Boeing

LONDON—The French Air Force is exploring the potential leasing of Boeing CH-47 Chinooks in an evaluation that could precede a potential heavy lift helicopter fleet purchase.

Commanders are looking at an acquisition of a heavy lift helicopter to fulfill a longstanding capability gap within the French armed forces and meet demands from the country’s special forces.

“The air force is looking to get a few aircraft through leasing to try out this sort of asset before proceeding with an acquisition,” Col. Bruno Paupy, deputy chief of plans at the French Air Force, told the International Military Helicopter conference here on Feb. 25. 

France is one of a handful of European countries that do not operate heavy lift helicopters, instead relying on types like the NHIndustries NH90, the Airbus H225M Caracal and Super Puma for troop lift and battlefield support operations. But France’s recent experience in Central Africa has prompted the need for a logistics heavy lifter.

Britain’s Royal Air Force currently has three CH-47 Chinooks deployed to Mali supporting French troops in the region since July 2018.

European industry also does not offer a heavy lift helicopter in the class of the Chinook, and studies for a notional Future Transport Helicopter led by then-Eurocopter in conjunction with Boeing were shelved around 2011-12. Neighboring Germany is also looking to replace its heavy lift Sikorsky CH-53G with either the CH-47 Chinook or the CH-53K King Stallion.

Paupy said he was looking for cooperation from neighboring countries to “learn” how to get the best out of the platform. But a fleet acquisition was unlikely to occur before 2025, in line with the country’s military programming law.

The purchase would form part of the French air force’s rotary-wing transformation in readiness for the 2030s. This will see the existing fleet of AS555 Fennecs—the military version of the twin-engine AS355 Twin-Squirrel/Ecureuil—replaced with the Airbus H160M Guepard. It will be used by the air force in the air defense, search-and-rescue and special forces missions, with some equipped for inflight refueling. The H160M is being purchased by all three of the French armed forces through the HIL Joint Light Helicopter program, although Paupy expects the air force to be the last of the services to receive the aircraft.

The air force’s H225Ms will go through an upgrade known as Standard 2, removing obsolescence, updating the rotorcraft’s self-protection systems and adding the Link 16 datalink, which the aircraft currently lacks.

The air force is hoping to supplement the Caracal fleet with the H225Ms currently operated by the French Army, particularly once special forces derivatives of the NH90 Caiman enter service. Air force-operated Puma helicopters could be replaced by repurposed commercial H225s such as those stored by oil and gas operators.

Beyond that, France is looking for a “new generation rotary-wing to replace the Caracal in around 2040,” Paupy told the conference.

“What is important is that we build that together with the Future Combat Air System, so it forms part of that system of systems,” he added.

Joint concept studies for the HM/NG are at an early stage, but Paupy hopes that all three French armed forces could sign joint requirements for such a platform in the next couple of years.


Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.