Thunder from Tonnerre
© 2011 FrontLine Defence (Vol 8, No 6)

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October 31st, 2011 marked the end of Operation Unified Protector, the UN-sanctioned NATO mission meant to protect Libyan civilians and civilian-populated areas under attack (or threat of attack), by enforcing an arms embargo and maintaining a no-fly zone. For seven months, eight NATO nations, in particular Canada, USA, France, and the UK, as well as non-NATO (UAE and Qatar) participated in offensive missions towards these objectives. At its peak, over 8,000 military people, 260 aircraft and 21 naval vessels were involved.

What the public will remember most are images and videos of jet fighters taking off from their bases – in Trapani for the Canadian CF-18, in Suda for the Qatari Mirage 2000, or from the CVN Charles de Gaulle for the French Navy Rafales.

Yet few people know that a decisive turn took place on June 4th, with the first strike missions conducted by British and French attack helicopters launched from naval platforms off the coast of Libya.
Below: A Tigre (French Army attack ­helicopter) takes off from FS Tonnerre during Op Unified Protector. 

Confirming the proposed use of helicopters, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Brussels that the move was in line with a United Nations resolution to protect civilians and NATO’s military operations. “What we want is to better tailor our ability to strike on the ground with ways that allow more accurate hits,” he said. “That is the goal in deploying helicopters.” NATO bombing had damaged Gadhafi’s armour but not enough to break a deadlock between rebels and government forces. While helicopters could make it easier to hit urban or em­bedded targets, they would also be more vulnerable to ground fire.

NATO considered the use of attack ­helicopters as key to increased flexibility for tracking and attacking pro-Gadhafi forces that were attempting to hide in ­populated areas.

Indeed helicopters were able to carry out these attacks, at very low altitude and at night, when jet bombers had reached their limits, being unable to properly identify and strike targets from high altitude. Their action brought new momentum to the stalled efforts of opposition forces on the ground, and directly contributed to the liberation of Tripoli.

Even though the NATO helicopters often came under fire from a wide range of weapons: from light and heavy machine guns to MANPADs, none were damaged.

Four British Apache attack helicopters flew from HMS Ocean, completing close to 50 combat sorties and striking 100 targets in the coastal areas of Brega and Tripoli.

On the French side, 20 Army helicopters operated from Force projection and command vessel, FS Tonnerre LHD (landing helicopter deck), including 12 Gazelle and 4 Tigre attack helos, as well as 2 Puma (flying command post).

The Army air group was supplemented by a couple of Navy helicopters (Alouette III and Dauphin), and later, when the Charles de Gaulle CVN departed the theater, two Air Force EC725 Caracal helos provided Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR).

Almost every night, FS Tonnerre and its naval escort sailed closer to the Libyan coast for launching 2 or 3 helicopter strike waves. These tightly-integrated strike packages consisted of: 2-6 HOT ATGM-armed Gazelles; 2 Tigres (30mm gun, rockets and HOT missiles); and 2 Pumas (flying-CP and CSAR), in cooperation with naval gunfire support from the frigates (100 and 76mm).
Two landing craft inside the Tonnerre’s well-dock.

Sister-ship Mistral, which had been used for the training of young naval officers, rushed to the area in mid-September to relieve Tonnerre. The transfer at sea of helicopters, logistics, ammunitions, troops and staff was swiftly completed in 24 hours, using their own transport helicopters and landing crafts.

In the end, the French choppers flew around 300 combat sorties and destroyed more than 500 targets, totaling roughly 90% of the strikes accomplished by NATO helicopters.

Even though Tonnerre and Mistral were mainly used as helicopter assault ships (and with more helicopters onboard than these vessels were normally designed for), they retained other capabilities, demonstrating their multi-role aspects. For instance, in addition to the air group command staff, these ships were ready to host France’s Task Force 473 HQ at the departure of CVN Charles de Gaulle.

Seven helicopters await instructions on FS Tonnerre’s flight deck.
Most of the French Navy assets were involved in Op Unified Protector, such as one nuclear attack submarine, two anti-submarine and anti-surface frigates, two airdefence destroyers, one LHD (landing helicopter deck) and one or two logistics and support vessels. Amphibious operations were also launched using landing crafts from these ships.

Op Unified Protector was an opportunity for the Mistral class LHD to demonstrate its capability to undertake helicopter assault operations from the sea. The results apparently exceeded the expectations. ­Tonnerre and Mistral were also used to treat casualties onboard in the NATO level 2 hospital (a medical team and over 70 beds).

Other capabilities of this multi-role vessel had been demonstrated even before their commissioning in the French navy, such as evacuation of refugees and humanitarian interventions in Lebanon in 2006, and its 2007 certification by NATO as ­Maritime Component Commander Headquarter (MCC/HQ)/ Combined Amphi­bious Task Force Headquarter (CATFHQ) for NATO Response Force (NRF).

In addition, its successful insertion with the “Unified Protector” chain of command proved its real interoperability with NATO, U.S. and Allied components.

This explains why France has decided to acquire two more copies of this vessel (the third one, Dixmude, was launched ­earlier this year and is currently undergoing sea trials). Other foreign customers have shown strong interest, such as Russia which recently ordered two ships to be built in France, with an option of two more to be built in Russia.
Christopher Bobyn is FrontLine’s international security video journalist. He is currently based in Germany.
© FrontLine Defence 2011