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  • Writer's pictureMike Lintott-Danks

Armée de Terre in the Pyrenees

Before attending the Tiger Meet spotters day on Friday 16th June Airspeed Media and Suffolk Military Aviation Society had the opportunity to visit Pau-Pyrenees base, home to the 5th Régiment d’Hélicoptéres de Combat

After passing through security Airspeed Media were given a presentation, by Major Francois, on how the 5th RHC differs from the other regiments and what the 5th RHCs place is within the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre, ALAT.

History of the ALAT and 5th RHC

The French air force, armée de l’air, was part of the army but in 1934 it split with the army to become its own force. The AdlA supported the army before the conception of the ALAT, which occurred in 1954, with transport and aerial support.

Once the ALAT had been established the first generation of helicopters that were used were the Vertol H-21 ‘Flying Banana’ and Alouette II. These were used initially in the Indo-China war an extensively in the Algerian War against insurgents before Algeria gained independence in 1962. The first generation of helicopters were used for transport into enemy territory and observation with little ability to defend themselves.

The second generation of helicopters gave rise to the attack helicopter and the defence of the eastern border against the Soviet Union. The RHC regiments were to be used to slow the assault from the large tank battalions from the Warsaw pact countries being armed with anti-tank weapons.

The main helicopters of this era were the Alouette II and IIIs, the latter which could be fitted with anti-tank missiles. An example of this was seen at the Helicopter museum at DAX which was visited in the afternoon.

The 1980s saw the 3rd generation of helicopters come into effect with both the Aérospatiale Gazelle and SA-330 Puma, which both bought a greater capability to the ALAT. There main objective was still to slow the large Warsaw pact tank battalions until supporting forces from other NATO members could land on the Atlantic seaboard and counterattack the aggressing force. There were 4 regiments based in the North East of France with 5 RHC being the only one in the South, this is where the 5th RHC autonomy comes from and where it excels at specific operations.

Moving into the modern age we see the ALAT and 5th RHC becoming better equipped with the Eurocopter Tigre and NH Industries NH90 Caiman, along with the 3rd generation Gazelle, Puma and Cougar. These 3rd gen helicopters have evolved to be able to complete their missions with upgrades to both the air frame and the avionics, including digitising parts of the cockpits. The 4th generation helicopters work closer with other ground forces and drones creating a highly efficient and integrated fighting force.

The future of the ALAT and the replacement for the Gazelle and Puma will be the Airbus Helicopter H160 which is due to arrive at Pau in 2021.

The present structure at the 5th RHC is a mixed fleet of Tigres, Cougars, Caimans and Gazelles with the Puma being retired in 2019. There are 1000 soldiers on strength at Pau with 20% of these being air crew. The rest are split between protection, support and maintenance personnel which means that the regiment is completely autonomous. The other support provided by the ALAT are two service support units involving flight controllers, fire fighters, meteorological specialists and vehicle maintenance support.

The pilots fly 140 hours per year but this can easily climb to 250 hours if they are deployed on operations. Not all these hours are in their helicopter mount. There is a suite of simulators at Pau which are utilised to provide realistic training without the expense of flying the helicopter.

With the 1st and 3rd regiments located in the North East of France the 5th regiment have used their location near to the Pyrenees to become mountain specialists.

The terrain and weather conditions create a challenging environment for the helicopters to fly in, with wind and disorientation being factors that test the pilots. The skills that the air crews gained in the Pyrenees became invaluable when flying in the mountainous regions during operations in Afghanistan.

The ALAT cargo crew school is based at Pau and concentrates on the mission for moving people and cargo efficiently and quickly in and out of the larger utility helicopters. A normal operational mission aboard a utility helicopter consists of two flight crew, pilot and pilot in command, a flight engineer and in combat two cargo crew members. The cargo crew members have additional roles during the mission being door gunners to aid with protection as well as their usual cargo role.

Over the past ten years the 5th RHC have been involved with three major conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali.

All of these conflicts had differing challenges and learning points that can now be employed by the 5th RHC on future missions. Afghanistan was challenging working with large scale NATO forces and with the Air Forces due to a common language needing to be spoken during intense situations. The short-range operations from well-equipped facilities allowed for great operational effectiveness by the helicopter force. The learning outcome from Afghanistan was that there needed to be harder and more difficult pre-deployment training with NATO procedures and joint operations with NATO partners.

Libya, Operation Chammal, was an entirely different war with the helicopter force being deployed aboard a ship and mainly flying at night. Operations involved a large mixed force of helicopters with up to 20 being in the air at one time. This was high intensity warfare with one strike squadron being against a Libyan mechanised brigade. Libya produced further learning outcomes with more regular operations with the Navy and also a need for more digitisation including a better system of ‘blue force’ tracking.

Operation Serval in Mali has been a great test of the 5th RHC ability to work autonomously and at a long distance from a well-supported airfield. The distance travelled from the helicopters arrival point at Bamako was the equivalent to travelling from Pau to the Northern coast of France. This was an enormous challenge with a limited supply chain, being a long distance from support and utilising Forward Arming and Refuelling Points throughout the mission. The Tigre proved that it was fit for purpose during Operation Serval, flying in high heat, heavy dust conditions in remote areas with limited support and maintenance.

Outside of these major operations the 5th RHC continue to support the missions closer to home in France. Since the 2015 terror attacks the 5th RHC have helped to support security missions within France. They also provide helicopters and crews for fire fighting missions in South East France and in Corsica to help fight wildfires. The fire fighters are air lifted to remote locations and fight these isolated fires to stop their potential of becoming larger more damaging fires.

The future for the 5th RHC will see newer technology, facilities and helicopters becoming integrated into this already battle proven, battle ready regiment. Digitisation of the helicopter force and abilities to link forces together will make the regiment more effective. The building of a new infrastructure for the maintenance and operation of the NH90 Caiman will see this base become even more self-supportive.

Thank you to,

Capitaine Maurice press officer for the Armée de térre

Capitaine Balistaire Communication officer for the 5th RHC

Major Francois 5th RHC

For the help in arranging this visit, for the presentation of the skills and abilities of the 5th RHC and showing us around the facilities and equipment at Pau.

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