BACCARAT 2020 “War in the mountains”
“War in the mountains”
The 2020 edition of the Exercise Baccarat, organized since 2017 by the 4th Air Combat Brigade (4e BAC), will undoubtedly provide some answers. The 24th Infantry Regiment (24e RI), the only Army unit composed exclusively of operational reservists, took part in it and, like for the previous Baccarat exercises, the focus was on high-intensity combat, but this time in a mountainous environment. Organized by the 4th Air Combat Brigade (BAC), the 4th edition of this exercise took place in the 2nd and 3rd weeks of September in the French Alps.
It mobilized 38 aircraft (7 different types) from the 1st, 3rd and 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment (RHC) as well as 1,600 soldiers, mainly from the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade (BIM). This edition, like previous ones, also had an allied dimension. From the UK, three WAH-64D Apache attack helicopters from the 4th Army Air Corps Regiment and a detachment of 45 soldiers were send out to participate. The WAH-64D Apache helicopters were operating from Valence-Chabeuil Airport.
The exercise took place on “a quadrilateral area of 150 over 250 kilometers and included a live-fire zone in the Mailly and Sissonne training areas and an exercise zone in the region of Valence – Grenoble – Gap – Briançon”. Although its format has been reduced compared to previous editions, this exercise pursues the same objective, namely “to validate the know-how acquired by the combined arms units at the end of a year of training in common, facing a conventional enemy equipped with the latest generation equipment, capable of leading a high-intensity symmetrical combat".
According to the strategic vision unveiled before the summer by the Army Chief of Staff (CEMAT), General Thierry Burkhard, the French Army must now prepare for “high intensity” combat, which has become a “very likely option”. It is, therefore, a question of giving the Land Force (FOT) more “mass”. This implies greater recourse to the operational reserve. Regarding the latter, General Burkhard declared during a parliamentary hearing that he was thinking about the roles it could play. There are three options: “either keep it in missions to secure the territory or as “kit” to do some kind of operational defense of the territory or partly integrate it into the relief of units engaged in high-intensity combat”.
The Army must prepare (again) to face an enemy comparable to what France has, namely a professional army. In other words: no longer just training to fight armed groups installed in Mali, Chad, Niger or Burkina Faso. Since January 11, 2013, France has indeed been involved in the Sahel. On the ground, the fight against terrorism is essentially based on intelligence and the destruction of a poorly trained, poorly organized, poorly equipped and often very young enemy. Currently, 5,100 French soldiers are deployed in the Sahel-Saharan strip.
Knowing that Operation Barkhane is France's largest operation outside its national territory (Opex), the Army must know how to face the challenges of tomorrow (cyberspace for example) as well as current threats (bioterrorism, etc.).
During this 2020 edition, we of FlyHigh Aeromedia, were welcomed for a few days at the Grenoble Le Versoud airfield, which at the time had been turned into a temporary air base. About 20 helicopters were based here during the exercise. The 5th RHC from Pau had sent EC665 Tigre and NH90 Caïman helicopters, the 1st RHC from Phalsbourg had sent NH90 Caïman and SA 342M Gazelle, the 3rd RHC from Etain had sent SA 342M Gazelle and Puma helicopters and the EALAT (French Army Aviation School) had sent some AS555UN Fennec which were used for training and liaison missions.
Beside these helicopters stationed at Grenoble Le Versoud airfield, the other helicopters were parked and operating from various sites, including the forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) in the mountains.
Beside the one to Grenoble Le Versoud airfield, a visit was made to the army base of Varces-Allières-et-Risset, home to the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade. A complete mobile military camp had been set up there. It was the central operations center from which the entire operation was coordinated and managed. There was also a mobile military hospital which had been recently declared operational and which can be made fully operational within 1 hour after arriving in-theatreand has all the necessary equipment and materials available to treat, operate and care for the wounded for the first 24 hours in wartime.
We spoke with Lt Laurent of the 1st RHC, who is normally based in Phalsbourg-Bourscheid, located in the North-East of France. We spoke to him about the experience he had built up throughout his career and the now recent Exercise Baccarat.
Lt Laurent has been flying the NH90 Caïman for about 4 years and has about 500 flight hours on this helicopter. Lt Laurent: “I chose to fly on the NH90 Caïman because it was brand new in the French Army. I have to say that the NH90 Caïman is a fantastic machine and it is much better than its predecessor the Puma on all fronts”.
“The French Alps are an exercise in itself. The rapidly changing weather, the steep slopes and the powerlines are all factors to take into account. But we can go without any restrictions because we have no height restrictions due to the very powerful engines”.
During Exercise Baccarat, the NH90 Caïman helicopters present flew different profiles, and all normal troop duties were tested again in the high mountains. The many possibilities of the NH90 Caïman came in very handy, with or without a door-gunner, fast-roping from the side doors or via the ramp at the back, SPIE (Special Purpose Insertion Extraction), rigging, which is a rapid extraction procedure in which several commandos hang on a rope under the helicopter. The latter is especially important in the Alps because it is not always possible to land. Depending on the configuration, the NH90 can embark up to 16 fully equipped commandos.
The NH90 Caïman can fly in the most difficult conditions thanks to its modern sensors and electronics, the Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) is displayed on a integral display in the pilot’s helmet and gives him/her all the necessary information he/she needs. Lt Laurent: “This helmet gives our NH90 pilots just that little extra”.
The rotary assets of the 4th BAC include the 1er Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat (RHC), based in Phalsbourg, close to Strasbourg and the border with Germany, with a mixed fleet of NH90, Tigre and Gazelle, the 3ème RHC located in Etain with Gazelle and Puma and the largest unit, situated in South France, the 5ème RHC in Pau, which operates a mixed fleet of Gazelle, Tigre, Cougar and Caïman.
Pau is also home to the 4ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales that provides air support to the French Special Forces.
French Army Aviation Helicopters (ALAT)
The 4e BAC currently has approximately150 helicopters with a number of aircraft deployed on a rotational basis for overseas deployments. About 20% of the 4e BAC helicopters took part in the Exercise Baccarat with Tigre, NH90 TTH and Gazelle from the 1er and 5ème RHC plus Gazelle and Puma from the 1er and 3ème RHC.
The SA330B Puma has been the main troop transport aircraft for the ALAT since the 1970s and has gone through a number of upgrades including composite blades, a defensive aids suite and a communication upgrade; they plan to continue flying the Puma until 2030. In 2007 the French government placed a first order of 34 NH90-TTHs to replace the Puma in the long term. The first fully operational NH90 aircraft was delivered in 2012, followed a year later by the official hand over to the 1er RHC at Phalsbourg. The first deployment of two NH90s to Mali took place in 2014.
The ALAT expressed a need for 150 NH90-TTH, later first revised to 133. In 2010, the order of 34 units was confirmed. In September 2018, with the deliveries to the 1er RHC completed, the 5er RHC in Pau began its transformation. In 2020, 43 machines were online. Accustomed to operational engagement outside France, the NH90 was involved in an extraordinary mission: Operation Resilience which, from March 18 to April 5, 2020, dedicated part of the air resources of the the Armed Forces Ministry to the transfer of COVID 19 patients.
Since 1973 the ALAT has operated the light single-engine multi-role Gazelle helicopter in a number of configurations and despite their age, as with the Puma, it is planned to remain in service until 2030, providing support for ground troops. The current SA342M variant is night vision goggles (NVG) compatible and is primarily an anti-tank aircraft capable of carrying four tube-launched MDBA HOT missiles. It was originally fitted with the SFIM APX M397 sighting system but has been upgraded with the SAFRAN Viviane sight. This is a stabilized roof-mounted sight with a direct through-the-lens view or an infrared image and a laser rangefinder effective up to 5km. It is mounted above the system operator and required structural reinforcement to the roof due to the sights’ increased weight and the main blades of the AS350 were retrofitted on the Gazelle to increase the performance and maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of the aircraft.
For a relatively young brigade, Exercise Baccarat was a real test for all participants it brought together. Air mobility is not unique to the 4ème BAC and working with its European allies is an opportunity to develop tactics and learn from each other mutually beneficial procedures that can be carried forward in the future. Every exercise of this scale provides units with the opportunity to implement realistic scenarios combining rotary and ground maneuvers, taking advantage of the changing pace offered by the helicopters.
We would like to thank Press Officer Gabriel, Captain Sandra, captain Nathalie and the crew of the 1er RHC NH90 Caïman for their hospitality and all their help during our visit.