While Australia’s Tiger Armed Reconnaissance helicopters have been deployed overseas just twice in their 15-year operational history, their French Army equivalents have been continually deployed on combat operations for more than 10 years now.
The two ARH deployments were both for exercises, firstly to Papua New Guinea in August 2015 for work with the PNG Defence Force, and most recently to Malaysia aboard an RAAF C-17, where they embarked aboard Navy LHD HMAS Canberra last year for Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE) 2019.
The Tigre (French spelling) is the spearhead of French Army aviation (ALAT - Aviation Légère de l'Armée de Terre) and first deployed to Afghanistan in mid-2009. Today it is flying daily combat missions over the deserts of Mali.
To learn more about French combat experience with the Tiger over the past decade, ADM visited Phalsbourg, west of Strasbourg and home to ALAT’s 1st Helicopter Regiment (1e RHC - Régiment d'Hélicoptères de Combat).
The French Army currently operates two versions of the Tigre but an upgrade program currently underway will result in commonality across the entire fleet.
The baseline version is the Tigre HAP (Hélicoptère d'Appui Protection), which is capable of employing 68mm rockets and the Mistral air to air missile, as well as the 30mm chain gun in the nose. Australia’s ARH was developed from this baseline aircraft, but with a laser designation capability added to the Safran Strix sight, which allows the use of Hellfire II missiles.
The second French variant is the Tigre HAD (Hélicoptère d'Appui Destruction), which is similar to the ARH in that it has laser designation capability and Hellfire II missiles, but it also has an enhanced version of the Turbomeca Rolls-Royce MTR390 engine, which confers about 14 per cent more power.
Thirty-six surviving Tigre HAPs are currently being brought up to HAD standard by Airbus Helicopters in Marignane, near Marseille, and the work is expected to be completed by 2024. The entire fleet is also being upgraded to Standard 2 configuration (also known as Mk.2, more of which later) and a Standard 3 (Mk.3) upgrade is now in the de-risking phase.
Two ‘standard’ ALAT regiments operate the Tigre: 1e RHC at Phalsbourg and 5e RHC at Pau in the south-west of the country and in addition it is operated by 4e Régiment d'Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (Special Forces Helicopter Regiment), also based at Pau.
The Tigre was first deployed to Afghanistan and began operations in July 2009, operating from Kabul in support of French and coalition forces in the region. On operations the French helicopters also operated closely with US Army Apache units.
Because the ALAT is a relatively small organisation, personnel are frequently deployed overseas and the two officers ADM spoke with in Phalsbourg, Captain Teddy, a patrol leader, and Chief of Operations Lieutenant Colonel Brice (their surnames have been withheld for security reasons), have extensive experience of all combat deployments.
Tiger is a lighter helicopter than the Apache (6 tonnes versus 10 tonnes) and it has been criticised for not providing the same level of capability, but Captain Teddy said operational experience has shown the two helicopters to be evenly matched.
“In Afghanistan we were embedded with a (US Army) Apache patrol, where we might fly the first two hours and they would relieve us and then we would come back, so it was quite simple for us to judge the performance of the two helicopters,” he said. “At the beginning of each mission we had to check in with the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) on the ground and we had to state our payload and playtime (mission endurance) in the area – and we couldn’t lie, because it was operational task data.
“We heard the Apache pilots giving all this information too and it was exactly the same as ours – exactly the same payload, exactly the same playtime – so we were not inferior to the Apache patrol, we provided exactly the same service to the troops on the ground.”
The Tigre was withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2013 but almost at the same time, the French Government announced it would deploy the helicopter to Mali. In between 2009 and 2013 however, ALAT Tigres were deployed on combat operations in Libya and the Central African Republic, as well as to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, for operational test and evaluation of the HAD version.
Opération Harmattan & the Central African Republic
Harmattan was the French codename for military operations in Libya in 2011 and two Tigre HAPs were embarked aboard the French Navy’s Mistral-class amphibious assault ship FNS Tonnerre for almost five months.
The Tigres adapted easily to the maritime environment and deck operations were simplified by the fact that its main rotor diameter was such that it could use the ship’s elevators. The ALAT helicopters flew missions alongside British Army Apache AH.1 helicopters, with considerable success.
“It was during the summer in Libya, so we experienced high temperatures, but the Tigre was designed to take off with a full payload,” LTCOL Brice remembered. “We had to calculate the endurance because the ship was not very close to the beach and we had a long transit over the sea. My Tigre pilots did the calculations and reported a payload of 450 30mm cannon shells, 68mm rockets, two (Mistral) missiles and three hours of playtime.”
In late 2013, the French Army was also deployed to the Central African Republic on Opération Sangaris - peacekeeping operations which included Tigre airstrikes against armed bandits.
The current operation is in Mali in Sub-Sharan Africa, where the French Army has been operating the Tigre since early 2013. Initial operations were conducted with the HAP version, but all deployments are now based on the HAD and the three regiments (including the Special Forces unit) each contribute aircraft and personnel.
The helicopters have been involved in heavy firefights, supporting troops on the ground under attack by Islamist Macina Liberation Front (or Katibat) rebels. Two Tigers and five maintenance personnel deploy from their main operating base at Gao into the desert at any given time and operate remotely for up to two weeks, using only equipment carried in by the maintenance team aboard the initial transport helicopter airlift and what can be stowed aboard the Tiger.
The ability of the Tigre to take battle damage has been proven on several occasions and on one such mission, CAPT Teddy recalled how a machine gun ambush had been set to shoot down the Tigers, one of which he was flying.
“The aircraft is very, very resilient to battle damage (and) I am proof of that. It was a helicopter ambush, the day before we fought a heavy company of Katibat and they knew the French helicopters would come back, so it was a suicide mission for them, they put some wounded guys on a hotspot with heavy machine guns and told them to concentrate their fire on them,” he recalled.
“I was flying and took 15 rounds of (7.62mm) PKM shells and it wasn’t a problem for me or the helicopter. One (avionics) box was hit but the helicopter merely advised me that it had switched to an alternate box. It was not a major problem and I flew it for 20 minutes back to the nearest secure French position.
“The second Tigre was hit too but we continued to fight after I came back. At another time we also had an RPG hit a Tigre and it was repaired in Gao in about two days,” CAPT Teddy said.
The Tigre is due to remain in service for many years to come and the French Army fleet is now being upgraded to Standard 2 (Mk.2) configuration, which comprises a GPS with a Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM), inclusion of the ALAT’s SIT datalink and new weapons, including Mistral 2 or 3 missiles.
As mentioned earlier, HAP variants are being upgraded to standard 2 configuration in conjunction with their conversion to HAD and will all have been completed by end of 2024. The existing HAD fleet will have all undergone upgrade by the end of 2023.
Beyond Mk.2, definition work is also underway for a Standard 3 (Mk.3) variant and although its final configuration is yet to be decided, the upgrade will likely include an enhanced sight (Strix NG), GPS and Galileo navigation systems, a manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) capability, modernised avionics, a new datalink, encrypted SATCOM, precision guided 68mm rockets, an enhanced 30mm cannon with a greater traverse (Extension Butée) and a replacement for the Hellfire missiles (likely to be the MAST-F – Future Tactical Air to Surface Missile).
“We use the Tigre in marginal conditions in the French Army,” CAPT Teddy concluded. “If you find the worst place on earth, you can be sure that in five years we’ll be operating there.” ■
Disclaimer: The writer travelled to Phalsbourg as a guest of Airbus Helicopters.