Change of course for the French Air Force’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): The 1/33 "Adour” UAV trials squadron, stationed at Air Base 709 in Cognac, south-western France, was transferred to a new organic command, the Fighter Brigade of the Air Force Command, effective Sept. 2, 2010.
A change of command ceremony chaired by General Herbert Buaillon, human resources director of the Air Force, took place earlier this afternoon to mark the transition of the 1/33 "Adour" trials squadron to the operational "Belfort" UAV squadron. This event provides an opportunity to look back on the history of the UAV in the French Air Force.
The Harfang UAV
The Harfang interim MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV system was first unveiled during a joint presentation of French Army and Air Force weapons and systems held on Reims air base on Oct. 2-4, 2007. The Harfeng was shown to Defense Minister Herve Morin, Generals Abrial and Cuche, respectively chief of staff of the air force and army, and students attending the Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale (IHEDN), France’s top military university.
"This asset provides an undisputed added value for modern operations," Lieutenant-Colonel Carcy said at the time. The unique strength of the drone lies in its capability to stay aloft continuously and, today, UAVs are emerging on most theaters of operations.
In France, the Air Force is a pioneer in this field, and it alone has MALE UAVs. The Air Force has bought a system consisting of three unmanned aircraft carrying a variety of sensors, and two ground control stations. These UAVs complement the existing range of specialized systems for intelligence-gathering: Mirage F-1CR, Transall Gabriel, E-3F Sentry, Helios satellite, and others.
The three Harfang UAVs are currently in service in the Air Force. Stationed in Afghanistan since 2009, these remotely-piloted aircraft support the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
In addition, the Directorate General for Armaments (DGA) on December 31, 2009 ordered a fourth Harfang aerial vehicle and a third ground control station from EADS. This new equipment will complement the first three UAVs and two ground stations already in service with the Air Force.
Since its introduction, the Harfang UAV has been continuously upgraded. On March 4, 2010, it performed its first flight in the Afghan theater equipped with the Rover datalink. This RVT (Remove Video Terminal) system broadcasts, in real time, video images from the UAV to troops in contact with the enemy. With this capability, French UAVs will meet strong demand for direct support of ground operations.
Afghanistan: 18 months of operations for Harfang
In February 2009, the French air force deployed the Harfang UAV on the Afghan theater. The change wrought by the advent of UAVs provides a new opportunity not only to understand combat operations and to study military perception of the operational environment, but also in the planning of new missions.
The French detachment of three Harfang UAVs deployed in Afghanistan is stationed at Bagram air base, north of Kabul. Harfang is dedicated to reconnaissance missions, and carries no weapons. It is remotely piloted by experienced pilots called flight operators. In addition to piloting the aircraft, they also operate the camera equipment. Harfang can capture over 12 hours of video imagery and transmit them over distances of over 1,000 km. in real time.
The Cognac squadron performs reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan in support of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), making best use of its ability to conduct multi-sensor surveillance. Its missions are very diverse: monitoring of villages, convoy escort, searching for Improvised Explosive Devices, preparing helicopter landing zones, and tactical intelligence for troops involved in combat operations. These missions are carried out both by day and night.
The three UAVs are deployed with their ground staff, comprising about 40 personnel.
On September 24, 2009, the three Harfang UAVs passed the milestone of 1,000 flight hour in Afghanistan, thanks to the sterling work done by the "Adour” squadron personnel and the ongoing support of the DGA.
To fly, Harfang UAVs require specially-qualified ground personnel.
The flight operator, in other words the pilot, sits before a screen on which the image of the drone appears. A panoramic camera mounted on the starboard vertical fin tail of the aircraft is used mainly for take offs and landings, by day and night, but in flight it also provides the operator with an overview of the aircraft and its immediate environment.
Using a joystick, the operator makes a final turn onto the runway before takeoff, which occurs automatically thanks to GPS guidance. During its long missions over the Afghan theater, the UAV monitors the territory it overflies, identifies potential targets and collects tactical intelligence for the benefit of all ISAF troops.
The ground component of the UAV system is composed of three stations: a ground station for mission planning, another for flight operations, which controls the UAV during flight and, via a satellite datalink, receives real-time video and, finally, a station for interpretation and dissemination of intelligence data, placed under the responsibility of an intelligence officer.
The execution of a mission thus requires at least three people on the ground. In fact, nine people will alternate in managing the mission, which can last as long as 20 hours or more. They include four flight operators who fly aircraft and operate the image sensors; two intelligence officers who previously prepared the mission and who, during the flight, ensure their objectives are attained; two photo analysts who analyze collected data and prepare target files; and, finally, an operator who collates all the intelligence available in the Afghan theater.
In addition, fifteen technicians of all trades (ground engineers, electronics and network specialists) also ensure the system is working properly.
Before each flight, the aircraft engineers must establish the satellite datalinks, carry out pre-flight inspections as well as other procedures, and check all equipment before handing over the UAV to the flight operators. The UAVs fly almost every day, and the operational pace is sustained.
A focus on the future
Over the past twenty years, the introduction of UAVs in defense has caused a real breakthrough in the way military operations are understood and apprehended.
As far back as the Vietnam War, remotely-piloted aircraft were pre-programmed to take pictures over enemy territory. But it was not until the 1990s, with the Balkan wars, that remotely-piloted aircraft began to be integrated into the military landscape.
The French Ministry of Defence decided in 1995 to purchase four Hunter tactical UAVs, which allowed the French air force to acquire a first experience in what was then a completely new field for her.
In 1996, the “drones” program team, designated 29/664, was established. This particular unit was responsible for the tactical testing and evaluation of the Hunter UAVs at Mont-de-Marsan, the French air force’s flight test center. The unit became the 1/33 "Adour" Experimental UAV Squadron in 2002, and was transferred to Cognac in 2009.
The Hunters were used operationally in Kosovo in 1999, and to ensure aviation security for the G8 summit in Evian in 2003, and were withdrawn from service in September 2004.
Because its endurance was limited to between 10 and 12 hours, the Hunter was replaced at the end of 2007 by the SIDM (Interim MALE UAV System), which offers a mission endurance of 24 hours.
The range of Harfang’s missions is widening as it makes its presence felt in the Afghan theater. This interim system should give way to the future MALE in 2016.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Similar UAVs, all derived from Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron TP, are currently operated in Afghanistan by Australia and Canada.)