Canadian and French Militaries Cooperate
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 4)

Today’s climate of unrest serves to highlight the value of cooperation between like-minded governments – and joint military exercises have always represented a keystone of such ties.

Air Force
Canadian and French Air Forces have trained and participated in joint exercises for many years. Recent examples include the January 2013 mission when Canada directly helped the French to deploy to Mali by sending a dedicated aircraft (the CC-177) for strategic transport.

In December that same year, the ­Canadian Air Force deployed to Corsica – a French island in the Mediterranean Sea where the French trained before deploying to Afghanistan. For the Canadians, the aim was to strengthen the expeditionary task force – a priority of Canada’s Air Force Commander, General Yvan Blondin. On that event, called Serpentex, Blondin once again met his French counterpart, General Denis Mercier, Chief of the French Air Staff. The two combat-experienced pilots flew each other’s fighter ­aircraft: the Canadian aboard the Rafale, and the French flying a CF-18. This showed the interoperability of the two air forces, right up to the commanders.

Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin prepares to fly the Rafale during a 2013 visit to France. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

With their Hornets, JTAC (joint tactical air controller), and a high-value, ISR-dedicated CP-140 Aurora, Canadian teams have shown their French fellows that they have an important part to play in modern operations. French and Canadians have fought together in Libya, with French fighters refueling on CC-150 Polaris and CC-130s.

Serpentex provided an opportunity to share lesson learned from recent operations in Libya, Mali, and Ivory Coast.

These weeks in Corsica provided an occasion to further strengthen ties and relationships, and established a new era of cooperation between air forces. Soon, five additional French fighter pilots will join the two already flying aboard CC-130 Hercules in Canada. The French Air force (FAF) also has exchange pilots in Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, but is looking to send others on a long-term basis because France currently lacks enough assets to provide military pilots with enough flight hours. Canada, on the other hand has a lack of fighter and transport pilots. One of the French Air Force commanders, General Serge Soulet, was a former CF-18 pilot, and describes such exchanges as one of the best “souvenirs” a pilot can have for professional growth.

The first foreign exchange pilot in the French Army, will be a Canadian (Griffon) helicopter pilot. Expected to arrive this autumn, the first Canadian to fly in France will pilot the Gazelle in eastern France. On a longer outlook, a pilot exchange program for the 6-tonne Tigre helicopter could also be possible.

Generals Mercier and Blondin have also initiated exchange officers inside their HQ. Working at the French Air Force ­doctrine center in Paris, this Canadian exchange officer is helping to further the bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

Structural cooperation can also be seen in the field of distributed simulation. France has existing solutions in the field of air defense and air operations, but also to train JTAC. ISR is also a clear example of what the two countries can do together, in the industrial and the operational field.

Tiger Multi-Role Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter EC665 produced by Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) is a 2-seater, twin-engined attack aircraft designed and developed as a joint venture between Germany and France. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

L-3 WESCAM, a Canadian company, is becoming the leading provider of optronics for France, beating out two leading French companies, Thales and Sagem. The French customers decided that Wescam’s products best fulfill their needs. The Gendarmerie took the first step by purchasing the MX-15 for its EC135 helicopters dedicated to surveillance. One pilot from Gendarmerie, who was working inside the French Special Operations Command (COS, commandement des operations spéciales), explained how precise the MX-15 is… which directly came into service on covert missions. ISR flights were first done above Mali during a hostage crisis in January 2011, and above Libya during the balance of 2011 (Canadian CP-140s were also flying this zone during the same time). The MX-15 proved very useful, but the aircraft had to fly sometimes on low level to allow more precise target identification.

The MX10 turret shown here is used aboard a Fennec operating in French Guiana. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

COS decided to buy the latest MX-20 which brings new standards and can operate at higher altitudes. This new step in ISR was actioned as an urgent operational requirement (UOR), and was certified for the beginning of French operations in Mali (Operation Serval), in January, 2013. The main steps of this campaign were all supported by MX-20: the new optronic turret was engaged on the capture of high value (terrorist) targets, seizing of three airports (Gao, Kidal, Tessalit) and the Special Operations ISR asset became a key asset during Op Serval.

MX-15 turrets are also used aboard ISR assets provided by CAE-Aviation, an aerial services provider from Luxembourg that flies Cessna 208B, CASA 212, and other specialized surveillance and low-level flight aircraft. These are used by both the French Military Intelligence directorate (Direction du renseignement militaire) and the Intelligence Service (Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, DGSE).

CF-18s prepare to take off from Solenzara Air Base, France. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

MX-20 turrets have also been added onto France’s Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft. This MPA has been used since the 70s as an ISR asset, and six of them were engaged simultaneously during the first months of Serval. Due to 2012 budget cuts, only one aircraft could be fitted at a time with the WESCAM turrets, which are integrated on the sonobuoy ejection tubes (aft part of the aircraft).

The French requirement for the MX-20 are very clear: French COS will get one more turret before the end of the year, and French Marine also need more Canadian eyes in the sky. In order to perform the ISR mission at higher altitudes with pressurized aircraft, Special Operations Command bought a SABIR system from Airdyne Aerospace. Compatible with the C-130 Hercules, the SABIR is fitted on the side paratrooper doors.

The smallest WESCAM turret, the MX-10, could also fit to French helicopters used by Gendarmerie (Fennec) and Air Force Fennecs. The MX-10 has been selected to fly aboard the French Customs (Douane) AS350 Ecureuils. It has also flown with French UAV projets, such as the naval Tannan proposed by Airbus Defense and Space.

LGen Blondin (left) chats with General Serge Soulet, a former CF18 exchange pilot who is now the Air Force commander in control of the frontline Air Force. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

CAE-Aviation, which is also the Wescam Representative for western European countries, has decided to establish a repair line for the MX series in central France. This new development will help reinforce Wescam products aboard the French air assets and may increase sales over time.

Naval Affairs
Looking at the future naval domain, we recognize that French frigates, large multi-mission ships, and possibly submarines could provide new opportunities for transatlantic cooperation which would build on our shared past. French and Canadian naval forces have worked in close cooperation for many decades. For instance, since 2002, frigates from both countries have been integrated in the Combined Task Force CTF-150, a naval group operating in the Indian Ocean for fighting terrorism at sea. This maritime portion of Op Enduring Freedom constitutes a valuable opportunity to improve mutual knowledge and develop interoperability at sea. During Operation Harmattan (codename for the 2011 French participation in the Libyan crisis), Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown spent some time in the French main military harbour of Toulon (Canadian Op Mobile), utilizing another opportunity to improve mutual understanding.

Two BPC in their harbour base in Toulon. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)

More recently, in June 2014, a French naval task group – composed of the frigate La Fayette and the command and force projection vessel (bâtiments de projection et de commandement or BPC) Mistral – trained with the Canadian Army in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System. Codenamed Exercise Lion Mistral, this was the first time Canadian Army troops, armoured vehicles, and three Griffons from 430 helicopter squadron ever embarked onboard French ships to conduct joint amphibious training in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The French Navy operates three of these 21,000-ton ships (nicknamed “Swiss Army knives” in reference to their diverse and flexible capabilities). Each can accommodate up to 16 attack and transport helicopters, up to 80 vehicles (including armoured vehicles and up to 15 main battle tanks), landing crafts, a 75-bed hospital, and a command center.

Since their commissioning in 2006, Mistral-class ships have operated in many missions. The ability to operate offshore without harbour facilities was used in Lebanon (2006) for humanitarian assistance and evacuation of European citizens and then for the reinforcement of UNIFIL (the Security Council mandate) with heavy assets (battle tanks and heavy artillery).

During the 2011 Libyan campaign, waves of attack helicopters were launched at night from these ships to destroy Kaddafi’s forces that were out of reach of allied combat jets. Ultimately, this action directly led to the overthrow of the dictator. French helicopters flew around 300 combat sorties and destroyed more than 500 targets, totalling roughly 90% of the strikes accomplished by NATO helicopters.

This EC135 with WESCAM MX-15 turret is operated by French Gendarmerie. (Photo: Jean-Marc Tanguy)
In early 2013, one BPC was also used as a naval mobile base, with six special forces and secret service helicopters, for a covert hostage rescue operation in Somalia.

Mistral-class multi-mission ships could be the centrepiece of Canada’s Expeditionary Force strategy for humanitarian and military missions. They are interoperable with US heavy air assets such as the USMC CH-53 and the MV-22, and the aft part of the BPC dedicated to embarkation can accommodate different types of landing craft including the new catamaran-type EDA-R  built by French shipyard CNIM, and the U.S. LCAC-type.

With the Canadian Navy looking to build a next generation frigate, the French FREMM (FREgate Multi Mission) can be a contender for such a requirement. This next generation frigate has already been used on operational missions in the Mediterranean Sea. In the French Navy, FREMM combines new approaches of naval power with a high level of warfare capabilities for antisubmarine, air defence and land attack, using the latest MBDA missiles (Aster) for Air Defense System and long range precision attack cruise (Scalp naval, derived from the Scalp cruise missile, combat proven during the Libyan mission).

FREMM can be operated by as few as 108 sailors. Highly automated systems allow the ship to be manned by a limited team, however some countries prefer a larger crew, which the FREMM can easily accommodate. Such choices remain flexible, depending on operational, recruitment and budgetary requirements of customer countries.

Morocco has decided to purchase one FREMM, and Greece is hoping to resolve its budgetary and financial crisis, which hit some months before signing a contract.

Two-way Export Success
France has invested in Canadian technology over the years. For instance, in the 90s, the French Navy bought commando RHIBs from the Zodiac Hurricane line, called ETRACO (embarcation très rapide pour commando, or Commando Fast Craft). Still in service, it is being replaced by ECUME, a new generation craft designed by Canadian Zodiac teams. Beginning in 2008, ETRACO was used in many counter drug operations and counter piracy missions along the Somalia coast. The area of optronics is also being led by Canadian technology, the WESCAM turrets mentioned earlier are an excellent reference for this.

Canada bought the Eryx light antitank missile from Aerospatiale in the 90s, and could become another customer for the MBDA air defense range (VL Mica or Aster) in the future. The combat-proven, twin-engine Rafale is a clear candidate to succeed to the CF-18. Dassault Aviation has clearly shown with India that this French aircraft builder has no problem to bring an assembly line wherever the customer needs it, which is another advantage that French companies can offer to Canada, ­further reinforcing our strong ties.

Jean-Marc Tanguy is a defence journalist whose main focus is on airpower and special forces. Based in Paris, France, he has contrib­uted to more than 30 defence publications.
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