The French Ministry of the Armed Forces has recently addressed the question of the non-acquisition of heavy transport helicopters (HTL) in the French Army. The question came from a Member of Parliament who noted the lack of such assets compared to France's allies.
Lack of Heavy Transport Helicopters
The absence of HTL was criticized in a 2014 Senate report, which compared the French special forces unfavorably to their US and UK counterparts in this regard. Despite the criticisms, a proposal to acquire HTL was abandoned to avoid disrupting the order for 68 NH-90 helicopters intended for the Army.
Deployment of NH-90 Caïman TTH
Despite the introduction of the NH-90 Caïman TTH helicopters in the Sahel, the Ministry has obtained the deployment of British and Danish helicopters for Barkhane operations. This has led to a reconsideration of the need for HTL in the French Army.
Constraints from Afghan Theatre
The Ministry highlighted that the need for HTL emerged from constraints experienced in the Afghan theatre. High altitudes and temperatures had a significant impact on helicopter operations. In such conditions, Chinook helicopters can transport a higher number of armed soldiers than the Cougar or Caracal.
Caïman Helicopters and HTL Cost-Effectiveness
However, the improved performance of the Caïman, being able to carry 15-20 soldiers compared to the Chinook's 25-30 in extreme heat, has brought into perspective the cost-effectiveness of HTL. Furthermore, HTL implementation and landing zone constraints only further complicate their practicality.
The Financial Implications
Studies conducted by the Ministry concluded against the acquisition of HTL. The estimated cost of acquiring just two Chinooks stands at €140 million. The costs would further increase with the addition of technical and logistical support and training. Alternatively, non-ownership acquisition, such as leasing, would cost between €140 and €400 million over 4 years, depending on the aircraft version and service level.
The Ministry’s Decision
The Ministry has therefore decided not to risk a significant “ejection” from the use of maneuver and assault helicopters and tactical transport planes. Instead, they have chosen to favor a robust, homogeneous HMA component for each Army branch, which comes with a considerably lower total possession cost than HTL. Nevertheless, the Ministry remains hopeful for cooperation from European partners to acquire HTL, if needed.
The Special Operations Command suggested that HTL would enable new action methods and counter future threats at the same level as our allies. As such, the possibility of training pilots and leasing HTL is still being explored with Germany, Canada, and the UK.