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Task Force Musketeer


Forward Operations Base (FOB) Nijrab, Kapisa Valley, Afghanistan, August 26, 2012. It is almost 06h00 PM. The sun is slowly setting under the horizon, for the night comes early in Afghanistan. Sitting on the FOB’s small gravel tarmac are a couple of Airbus Helicopters SA-342 Gazelles, a pair of EC-665 Tiger attack choppers and a lonely EC-725 Caracal transport helicopter. In a scream of its Turbomeca Astazou turbine, a single SA-342 slowly takes off, before suddenly banking forward and disappearing swiftly over the FOB’s walls, into the darkness of the surrounding mountains. A Tiger follows seconds later, scrambling from the tarmac in a huge cloud of brownish dust. All night long, helicopters come and go, disturbing my sleep. Four to six French choppers were permanently deployed at Nijrab in those days, conducting transport, recce and escort duties in support of the logistics convoys crossing the Kapisa valley, as part of the French withdrawal from Afghanistan. These helicopters were part of the Bataillon d’Hélicoptères (BATHELICO: Helicopters Battalion), the unit then in charge of operating all rotary wing assets deployed by France in Afghanistan.   

Helicopters Task Force Musketeer Afghanistan (France)
Helicopters Task Force Musketeer - France (Photo credit ISAF)

Helicopters and Afghanistan

In the days of the war between soviets and mujahedeen, helicopters already played a key part in all military operations. The Mi-24 Hind and Mi-8/17 became the stalwarts of all combat operations conducted by the Soviet and Afghan military. Over a decade later, in the late 1990s, commander Massoud employed a handful of Hip and Hind in his fight against the Taliban, the helicopters providing critical air support and logistical back-up in most offensives. When Taloqan fell in 2000, a couple of battered old Mi-17s were all that Massoud’s forces could field to provide ammunition resupply and medical evacuation… Nowadays, after over 13 years of western military presence in Afghanistan, the situation can hardly be compared. All major roads have been rebuilt allowing for sustained ground traffic. Nevertheless, travelling by road remains a hazardous business with insurgents conducting frequent improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on all major axis with the consequence that ISAF troops only travelled in convoys, aboard armored vehicles and not before the area they were preparing to cross had been cleared of all potential threats by engineers. The remaining NATO forces deployed under Operation Resolute Support are still experiencing the same difficulties as we write. Moving by convoy also requires that fire support points be established all along the way, that a quick reaction force be available at a moment’s notice to bring in reinforcements in case of ambush and that aircraft are in the air, providing top cover… It is also a slow business and reaching a FOB such as Nijrab, in the Kapisa valley, took around five hours from Kabul when a helicopter departing from Kabul International Airport (KAIA) did it in less than 20 minutes… Helicopters are therefore essential means of transportation, both fast and safe except during takeoff and landing, for they are hardly exposed to any kind of real threat from the insurgency, which still lacks any sophisticated anti-aircraft weapon to this day.

An unforgiving environment

Afghanistan is a nightmare for any helicopter operator. The country is mostly mountainous with the capital Kabul sitting 1800 meters high, surrounded by even higher mountains. The ubiquitous dust of the summer is so thin it gets everywhere. Luckily it isn’t as sticky or abrasive as the proverbial African laterite and a carefully scheduled maintenance is enough to prevent excessive wear to the engines. The sand filters mounted on the turbines still need to be checked twice as often as anywhere else though (except Mali and other Saharan countries) and it is also necessary to thoroughly inspect and clean certain valves on a much more frequent basis. The blistering heat prevalent from May to October every year in Afghanistan affects drastically the performances and operational capabilities of all helicopters, even the sturdy Russian models… In summer the hot and high environment of the Kabul area and surrounding valleys is the worst possible combination for helicopter operations. French choppers, flying between KAIA and Nijrab or Tagab operated at the very limits of their capabilities. Back in 2012, the Gazelle, Caracal and Cougar taking off from Kabul would be limited to a minimal useful load while, thankfully, the Tiger attack birds found themselves much less affected by the altitude and heat due to their powerful engines. Also, the type of missions conducted by these combat helicopters in Afghanistan mostly required the sole use of their 30 mm canon, with the result that Tiger helicopters would fly without any external load and consequently with a fair amount of engine power in reserve.

A brief history of the BATHELICO

French military forces have been involved in Afghanistan since 2001, from the earliest days of the US campaign, finally settling in Kabul as part of the newly established ISAF. While jet fighters were deployed early on, helicopters were to be found lacking until 2006, when the nutshell of a rotary wing detachment was finally established in Kabul with two French Air Force (Armée de l’Air) EC-725 Caracal. These two helicopters, belonging to the Air Force’s EH 1/67 Pyrénées Squadron, arrived in November and were immediately engaged in transport, reconnaissance, MEDEVAC and CSAR operations. On September 2007 the French Army Aviation (Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre) took over from the Air Force with two AS-532 Cougar belonging to the 1er Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat (RHC: Combat Helicopters Regiment) from Phalsbourg 1., which themselves were both replaced on April 2008 by a new pair of Caracal from the Pyrénées. Back in 2007, the newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy had pledged to strengthen significantly the French military presence in Afghanistan, with French troops switching from security duties to combat missions and deploying to new areas of the country, namely the Surobi and Kapisa valleys. The Uzbeen ambush, in Surobi, on August 18 and 19, 2008, cost the life of ten French soldiers, pressing home the reality of the war in Afghanistan. The French Air Force’s Caracal were heavily mobilized in a number of support flights in the combat area where the troops were being pinned down by the Taliban.

On August 18, taking aboard a number of commandos from the elite CPA N°20 (Commando Parachutiste N°20) and a medical team, two EC-725s take-off from KAIA at the end of the afternoon, heading straight for Sper Kunday, in the Uzbeen valley, where the French troops are still pinned down despite the arrival of reinforcements and sustained air support. The commandos are put down at the site to secure the DZ and protect the medical team which also disembarks. Both choppers then take-off again in an unsuccessful attempt to pinpoint enemy positions and are fired at by the Taliban in the process. After dropping a medic back at the DZ, the two Caracal head back for KAIA where they arrive at nightfall for a “hot” refueling, also taking aboard 16 soldiers which are spread between both helicopters. Within 13 minutes of landing, both aircraft are back in the air, heading for Uzbeen. En route to the DZ, they are ordered to drop their embarked troops in the vicinity of the Tora FOB, following an alert that the base has been fired at (this will later prove to be a false alert). The CPA N°20 commandos then request a MEDEVAC as a first group of wounded soldiers are about to arrive at the DZ. Four French soldiers and an Afghan are eventually embarked along with an Air Force medic while the military surgeon remains on site to take care of any incoming casualty. Within 18 minutes, the wounded are dropped at the French Military Hospital at the Warehouse base, in Kabul. The choppers then take aboard a CPA N°30 TACP team and refuel quickly at KAIA, soon taking to the air again, first heading for the DZ where the medic and TACP group are dropped and then landing at Tora, where the EC-725s remain on standby. Soon, they are called out for a new MEDEVAC and head for the DZ where eight wounded (seven French, one Afghan) are loaded aboard, along with the surgeon. The helicopters head once again for Kabul where the casualties are disembarked and immediately fly back to the DZ to drop off the surgeon, recovering yet another wounded in the process and delivering him to the Czech Military Hospital at KAIA before refueling again. Now flying in the middle of the night with NVGs, the two EC-725s fly back to the contact area with reinforcements aboard. Just after dropping them off they receive a MEDEVAC request and head back for the DZ where 6 wounded are embarked along with the medic and surgeon. Flying conditions are hard and landings extremely tricky due to the dusty environment. The casualties are transported back to the hospital at Warehouse and then the two choppers proceed to KAIA for another refueling. Another MEDEVAC is requested but not before a group of troops is moved from the bottom of the valley to the top of Sper Kunday. The wounded are taken back to Warehouse. By then both helicopters and their crews have been on continuous operation for the past 12 hours. Despite their tiredness, the men volunteer when a request is made for helicopters to airlift the bodies of the dead French soldiers killed during the ambush. Along the way, another group of soldiers is transported from Tora to Uzbeen. Immediately after, the two EC-725s land at the DZ to embark seven bodies which are flown back to Warehouse. The emotion is at its peak for the crews as they fly away with their fallen comrades. By 12 AM on August 19 a final flight is conducted to evacuate the remaining bodies from Uzbeen. The aircraft finally cut their engines at 0210 PM following a total of 14 hours of operation including seven hours of flight per aircraft (five of them at night 2.  

The Uzbeen tragedy highlighted the urgent need for a major strengthening of the French airmobile assets in Afghanistan. By late 2008, the number of French helicopters based in Afghanistan would have tripled with the arrival of an extra Air Force EC-725 and three Army Aviation SA-342 Gazelle. In December, the Détachement Alat des Opérations Spéciales (DAOS: Army Aviation Special Operations Detachment, now the 4ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Forces Spéciales or 4ème RHFS) finally deployed to Afghanistan, with two Caracal coming in to take over from a pair of Air Force EC-725s. This was the first operational deployment of the ALAT’s own Caracal. The year 2009 would see the arrival of two Army Aviation Cougars and, most importantly, on July 26, of three Tiger HAP attack helicopters, on their first ever deployment to a combat zone. This decision was in part the result of a major lobbying effort from Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) to have the French Army finally field the Tiger in Afghanistan, a highly demanding combat area where it would be possible to evaluate the chopper’s capabilities in a fully operational environment. The aircraft’s crew, all hailing from the 5ème RHC deployed to Afghanistan on July 13 and spent the following 13 days getting acquainted with the specifics of the mission in Afghanistan, including the Rules of Engagement (ROE). They also helped set up the Tiger module pending the arrival of the aircraft. As soon as the helicopters arrived efforts began to ensure their full operational readiness within the shortest possible timeframe. As early as August 15, all three EC-665 were ready for combat operations following an intense on-site training process and two live firing campaigns. Five days later they took part in their first combat sortie in support of the ongoing national elections. In the course of the flight the two aircraft in the air also had their baptism of fire after being targeted by a 14,5 mm machine gun which they promptly neutralized with 68 mm rockets. 3.    

The continued strengthening of the French helicopter fleet in Afghanistan resulted in the establishment of a helicopter battalion (BATHELICO), in order to ensure the efficient management and maintenance of an 11 helicopter strong fleet. The BATHELICO was to be known as Task Force Musketeer to the rest of the ISAF. Over the following years the fleet fluctuated, reaching its greatest number in October 2011, with 15 aircraft: four Tiger, five Gazelle, three Cougar and three Caracal.

In Afghanistan, the French pilots resorted, among others, to a typically French flying pattern known as “vol tactique” (tactical flying), flying 30 feet from the ground at 100 knots, thus making it very difficult for the enemy to detect an incoming helicopter, the aircraft’s silhouette and engine noise being muffled by the ground. It would also be highly tricky for any insurgent to get a clear shot at a chopper flying in such a way. This flight pattern was also put to great use by the French during the war in Libya and more recently, in Mali. It was originally intended to make up for the Gazelle’s lack of armor.

Regarding night flying, the reader should be reminded that in aviation, nights are identified according to their degree of darkness from very clear (level 1) to pitch black (level 5). While all NATO Air Arms are capable of flying in night levels from 1 to 3 only a select few have crews whose training allows for flying in levels 4 or 5. The French Air Force and Army Aviation are among these few and this ability proved a critical asset in Afghanistan. 4.

Another new operational concept developed and implemented in Afghanistan was the mixed patrol combining a Gazelle and a Tiger helicopter. This concept emerged as part of an effort to take advantage of the different capabilities offered by these two types of aircraft in terms of sensors and weapons as well as to make the best possible use of the limited Tiger fleet available in Afghanistan. With its HOT missile capability the Gazelle brought a high precision weapon capability into the fight which the Tiger HAP lacks (it is armed with a 30 mm canon and 68 mm unguided rockets). Its Viviane sight which can “see” certain things the Stryx sight of the Tiger cannot and vice-versa also helped to enhance the ISR capabilities of the patrol. Finally the pairing of these two different helicopters allowed the fielding of a greater number of patrols than by only using pairs of Tiger for CCA sorties. While the Gazelle has indeed a slower speed and lesser endurance than the Tiger, the impact of these differences could be significantly limited by positioning a Gazelle and a Tiger on call, directly at a FOB, where they would be much closer to the French Area of Responsibility (AOR) and thus capable of entering in action much sooner than when taking off from KAIA. An added benefit of this pattern of operations would be to save precious flying hours by keeping the aircraft on the ground ready to take to the air instead of tasking patrols from KAIA which, to be available at a moment’s notice would have to be on station in the air, in the AOR. Of course, the possibility of an emergency requirement for air support while all aircraft where at KAIA was taken into account and planned for. In such a situation a patrol of two Tiger would be tasked instead of a mixed one as the Tiger’s much greater speed would allow them to reach the AOR quicker than if flying paired with a Gazelle. 5.

When the Musketeers fire in anger

The Tiger’s arrival in Afghanistan meant that the BATHELICO’s air support missions were to take a new dimension. With this new bird at hand, the Musketeers finally had an aircraft designed from the onset for combat duties and attack missions, one which could offer sufficient protection to the crew and wield some serious firepower at the insurgents in the shape of 68 mm rockets and 30 mm canon shells. The TF Musketeer fifth mandate, during the summer of 2011 saw exceptional activity and an unprecedented amount of combat actions for the French helicopters which were heavily involved in air support operations to the benefit of the ground forces. The bloodiest year for the French forces in Afghanistan was 2011 with 25 soldiers killed in action. The summer was by far the tensest period and saw the French forces deployed in Kapisa and Surobi engaging in combat like never before. As far as helicopters were concerned the operational tempo was as intense as that of the ground forces. Between May and August 2011 alone, 400 combat missions were flown. From June to October some 130 Close Combat Attack (CCA) missions were conducted, 67 of which saw the helicopters involved open fire… This surge in air support operations was a direct result of the strategy implemented at the time by the Task Force La Fayette (the French combat component in Afghanistan) which focused on aggressively tracking and engaging the enemy into the "green zone" where combat would be highly brutal and take place at extremely short ranges. This pattern of contacts made the job much tougher for all supporting assets which would be limited in their firing possibilities by the very close proximity of civilian inhabitations, which resulted in a much higher risk of civilian casualties (CIVCAS) in case of a miss. The danger of a friendly fire incident was also constant due to the overlapping nature of the contacts between French troops and insurgents and it is worth remembering that most support shots were aimed at targets located within less of 100 meters from friendly forces… Another recurring duty taking place during this summer was the destruction of High Value Targets (HVT): primarily vehicle-born IEDs (VBIEDs) before their being employed. Usually, local intelligence would allow to determine the location of a VBIED and an operation would be put together, usually mobilizing a drone, an immediate extraction (IMEX) component with transport helicopters and the strike patrol combining a Tiger and a Gazelle, the later in charge of using a HOT missile (which thanks to its precision limited the danger of CIVCAS) to neutralize the VBIED. 6. Sometimes ground forces would be involved too, with a JTAC among them to help confirm the target's location.

One of the most memorable missions carried out by the BATHELICO at the time was perhaps the CCA flights conducted in support of the paratroopers of Battle Group Raptor on July 12, 2011, in the aftermath of the suicide attack that took place in the hamlet of Joybar, in the Kapisa valley. The troops were providing security for a Shura when an insurgent dressed as an Afghan policeman reached a position occupied by men of the Groupe Commando Parachutiste (GCP: French Para-Commandos with Pathfinder capabilities) and blew himself up, killing five (one of them actually an Army photographer) and injuring many more. Only moments after the explosion, a combined Gazelle-Tiger helicopter patrol was already coming in and hitting the insurgents which had opened fire in the immediate aftermath of the suicide bomber’s attack. The helicopter’s swift intervention rapidly quelled the ambush and allowed for the rapid evacuation of the wounded and the proper withdrawal of the remaining French ground forces in the area. During the night of July 13 to July 14, a combined patrol of Afghan Police and French Special Forces was hit while operating in the valley of Alassay. The contact lasted for several hours with the French and Afghan troops being pinned down by the enemy and therefore unable to safely disengage. Called to the rescue, a pair of Tiger HAP blasted the insurgents, finally allowing part of the friendly forces to withdraw. A French Navy SF lost his life in the course of the operation. A couple of months later on September 7, a new combined French-Afghan operation was to end up in a fully-fledged battle against the Taliban. The French and Afghan troops were conducting a sweep of an area in the vicinity of the village of Mobayan when all hell broke loose. The French paratroopers of the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes (RCP: Regiment of Parachute Hunters) were aggressively engaged by the enemy while covering the scheduled withdrawal of their afghan counterparts. The French soldiers met with devastating enemy fire and found themselves blocked, with no possibility whatsoever of a safe extraction. The Musketeers were soon overhead, Tiger patrols coming in on strafing runs against enemy positions. Despite the heavy air support, the insurgents didn’t flinch and continued opening on the paratroopers. The helicopters were hampered in their attacks by the very close proximity of the Taliban and the friendly forces. In the meantime, a small column of fresh troops from the 1er RCP was attempting to link up with the isolated French paratroopers so as to finally allow them to withdraw. This proved impossible and the defenders were still some meters away from their rescuers. With choppers still in the air and hitting the Taliban continuously, the isolated French soldiers finally made a run for it, one of them having to carry a wounded Army dog in his arms. This operation saw the death of an officer of the 17ème Régiment du Génie Parachutiste (RGP: airborne engineers), killed at the peak of the battle and many wounded troops, some of them quite severely… A journalist who had been accompanying the patrol was also wounded, albeit lightly. Air support to logistics convoys was another recurring task for the helicopters of the TF Musketeer. On this summer of 2011, almost every convoy would be hit by the enemy, with sometimes quite aggressive and large ambushes. French choppers would either be on call ready to take off and intervene or already in the air, overflying the column, ready to suppress any enemy threat. Throughout the summer of 2011, there wasn’t a day where the French helicopters were not called in support of the ground forces…

The TF Musketeers’ pilots devised a number of methods and proceedings to reduce the scope of the threat continuously posed by the insurgency in Afghanistan. Among these was of course the very low altitude and high speed “tactical flight” but also, quite on the opposite, high altitude flying, to keep well clear of any small arms’ range and allow the crew to gain a broader view of the operational area, these patterns being used depending of the environment the helicopters found themselves flying in. Stationary flight was all but banned and all support fire was delivered in strafing runs, always in pairs, with one aircraft covering the other and so on. The Tiger's roof-mounted SAGEM Stryx or the Gazelle's Viviane sight was always used in fire support missions so as to maximize the accuracy of the rounds fired. In the case of the Tiger however, the crew could still fire back if under attack by locking onto the target with their THALES TopOwl helmet’s integrated sight alone.

BATHELICO 2012, the withdrawal

At the time of my visit, in late August 2012, the BATHELICO was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Xavier Mouret, an ALAT Puma pilot from the 1er RHC of Phalsbourg. The battalion had a strength of 138 men and women then and fielded 13 aircraft: five Gazelle, four Tiger, two Cougar and two Caracal, one of them belonging to the Air Force. The personnel detached from the 1er RHC was tasked with operating and maintaining the Gazelle as well as providing part of the technicians for the servicing of the Tiger helicopters and the command structure for the entire BATHELICO. The Tiger were flown by a mix of pilots belonging to the Luc French-German School, the ALAT’s 5ème RHC (which also provided the balance of the maintenance crews for the type) and 4ème RHFS (Helicopter Regiment of Special Forces, descendent of the DAOS, a unit combining Army Aviation and Air Force aircraft and crews). The Caracal module was run by the 4ème RHFS and a detachment from the Air Force’s EH 1/67 Pyrénées squadron. The 5ème RHC was also in charge of operating the Cougar transport helicopters, providing both crews and maintenance technicians. A service tech from the Australian Army Aviation was also attached to the TF Musketeer’s Tiger module, with a pilot expected to take over within the following months. A Commando Parachutiste N°30 (CPA-30: Airborne Commandos) ten men team was deployed as part of the BATHELICO, for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) purposes. Aside from acting as reserve in case of an incident which would require the deployment of a CSAR team on the ground, the CPA-30 group also had a single escort personnel aboard all Caracal and Cougar flights. By mid-September 2012 a fifth Tiger was dispatched from Pau to temporarily boost the combat potential of the BATHELICO at a time where the withdrawal process was picking up more speed and the increase in logistics convoys demanded more air assets for top cover. With FOB Tagab finally handed over to the ANA, the TF Musketeer started also withdrawing, all five Gazelles being shipped back to France in October 2012 along with a single Tiger. In December, two Tigers, a Cougar and a Caracal were also returned to France. This also meant the end of the BATHELICO which was transformed into a simple helicopter detachment with two Tigers, a Cougar and a Caracal. Finally, early in February 2013, the two remaining Tigers left Afghanistan with the single Cougar and Caracal remaining there until early March. They continued operating, providing MEDEVAC services in support of the French Military Hospital of KAIA and while the initial plan was to have them in Afghanistan at least until April, the pressing need for more helicopters in Mali resulted in an earlier withdrawal.  

At the time of my visit to the BATHELICO, the Musketeers were on their seventh mandate. To prepare for it the personnel headed for Afghanistan had gone through a rigorous Mise en Condition avant Projection (MCP: Preparation prior to deployment) in France for a period of six months. The final step into this preparation was a major exercise known as “Bearnistan” which took place in South Western France and allowed for all standard mission patterns in Afghanistan to be run: escort, air support, reconnaissance, MEDEVAC, etc. A great emphasis was placed on night “tactical flight” training using NVGs and on high mountain operations. The MCP also allowed for the development and cementing of interaction and cooperation between the crews coming from the 1er RHC and those of the 5ème RHC and 4ème RHFS. Unlike ground personnel which were deployed on tours of six months the Musketeers' air crews' tours lasted three months, due to the unusually high rhythm of flying which put a major strain on them and thus required their more frequent rotation.

The French withdrawal throughout 2012 from Afghanistan didn’t result in any reduction in the activity of the TF Musketeers, quite the opposite in fact. The increase in logistics convoys resulted in a greater number of requests for air support, in the shape of reconnaissance or escort flights. Whether on call or on station the Tiger-Gazelle duo would be the one in the air most of the time. The ageing roof sight of the SA-342 Gazelle Viviane is still a highly efficient sensor and in Afghanistan it proved often ideal for observation and reconnaissance duties, easily pinpointing potential enemy concentrations or movements. The Tiger’s 30 mm canon turned out to be the most suited weapon for operations in Afghanistan, offering deadly accuracy therefore limiting to a minimum the dreaded danger of CIVCAS or friendly fire incidents. The French helicopters were also frequently called in support of the Afghan National Army (ANA) ground operations, acting in more than one occasion as a key deterrent against the insurgents. MEDEVAC missions were very frequent, be it in support of French forces and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF: Army and Police) or occasionally, to the benefit of wounded civilians which would then be ferried to the French HMC (Role 3 Military Hospital of KAIA). Transport duties were the last major responsibility of the BATHELICO’s fleet, mainly to ferry support personnel such as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), Special Forces or VIPs and Commanding Officers for staff meetings. All missions would be flown in duos, transport helicopters being generally escorted by a Tiger of a Gazelle, while air support and reconnaissance flights would see a pair of Gazelle flying together or two Tiger or a mix of the two types depending on availability. The latter was always high despite the intense rhythm of operations and would stand at between 80 and 90%.

Commandos of CPA-30 (France) Deployed to Afghanistan
Commandos of CPA-30 in front of a Frence EC-725 at KAIA.
Their weapons inlcude the H&K 416 assault rifle, FN Minimi light
machine gun, and a Sako TRG-42 in .338 Lapua Magnum.
(Photo credit E.C.)

The CPA-30 in Afghanistan         

The Commando Parachutiste N°30 is a French Air Force unit based at Mérignac BA 106 Air Force Base, near the city of Bordeaux, in South Western France. It is an elite outfit specializing in CSAR operations, a type of mission for which it is one of the leading forces in the whole of Europe. The Commando has some 250 personnel on strength and is divided into three companies. All members of the CPA are fully trained and highly proficient paratroopers, being also qualified JTACs, allowing them to direct air strikes on ground targets when needed. CSAR remains their first assignment though. The CPA-30 first deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, when the first French helicopters arrived in country. From 2010 on, the CPA deployed in the summer to Afghanistan while the winter saw first the ALAT’s Pelotons de Reconnaissance et Balisage (PRB: specialized platoons trained in locating and preparing LZ for helicopters, dissolved in 2011) and then the French Army’s Groupe Commando de Montagne (GCM: Mountain Commandos) take over. The CPA-30 detachment that was deployed in 2012 comprised ten men: a radioman, a combat surgeon, a machine gunner armed with a 5,56 mm FN Minimi, a sniper equipped with a .338 Lapua Magnum Sako TRG-42 rifle, a detachment leader (a captain) and his deputy, a team leader and his deputy and two riflemen. In Afghanistan the primary mission was Personnel Recovery (PR) although the commandos would also be available if necessary for JTAC duties. If operating on their own, the team would have at least six men on the ground. While there was always at least one commando aboard every transport helicopter flight, MEDEVAC sorties would see two men embarking to provide additional security and assistance to the medic and surgeaon aboard, since all commandos are fully trained in field medical assistance. The detachment equipment included a full range of HF and VHF radios for communication with ground forces and aircraft, a ROVER 5 terminal for transmitting live images and footage to coalition aircraft, an ANPQ-4 laser designator for marking targets, Panasonic CFU1 Toughbook laptop computers and OB-70 NVGs. The standard weapon was the 5,56 mm H&K 416 assault rifle and PAMAS G1 9 mm pistol. All men carried a bulletproof Eagle Industries CIRAS vest.


French Helicopters in Afghanistan

SA-342 Gazelle Helicopter - Task Force Musketeer France
SA-342 Gazelle Helicopter (Photo E.C.)

GAZELLE: Five SA-342M Gazelle Viviane were deployed in Afghanistan where they conducted recce and close air support missions. While the Gazelle can carry up to four HOT wire-guided anti-tank missiles when operating in France, the type’s weapon’s load was limited to only one of these when flying in Afghanistan. The HOT would not be mounted at KAIA to avoid further degrading the already limited performances of the Gazelle in the Afghan summer. Instead it would be installed on the machine at Nijrab, the FOB’s lower altitude allowing an easier take-off than in Kabul. The SA-342s deployed in Afghanistan were all fitted with the AS-550 Fennec main rotor’s blades, the latter allowing greater sustainment in flight. Also, the Gazelle’s maximum take-off weight was boosted from 1900 kg to 2100 kg. The roof mounted sight incorporates a laser rangefinder and heat seeking camera. The latter was seldom used in the Afghan summer mainly because the heat reverberation of the day didn’t allow for a sufficient differentiation between the temperature of a human body and that of its rocky surroundings. Thankfully the optical day sight offers excellent capabilities and provides an image whose quality is close to that of the Tiger’s Stryx sight. In Afghanistan, the Gazelle optical sight was an essential tool for observation, recce and positive identification of targets before engagement. When flying in Afghanistan, the crew would be limited to the pilot and the crew chief, also acting as weapons’ operator. With a ground temperature around 35°C the helicopter would be flying at the very edge of its power, with an endurance not exceeding 1h20 minutes. In case of engagement, a Gazelle could fire its single wire guided HOT at a distance of up to 3800 meters. The missile is very precise and proved to be highly efficient when fired against afghan compounds whose thick dried mud walls are notorious for stopping most rounds even .50 cal. The HOT was also great against light vehicles or to hit caves were the insurgents frequently took refuge. Maintenance was run on scheduled hourly cycles, certain additions having been made to take into account the specificities of the afghan environment. Turbines would be washed every five hours of flight and polished every 12 hrs. Every 25 hours, besides running a standard engine inspection, the mechanics would check the compressor’s blades with an endoscope for signs of wear. On 10 June 2011, an SA-342 went down in a storm while escorting an AS-532. The pilot was severely wounded while, tragically, the aircraft commander, Captain Mathieu Gaudin died in the crash. His death was the only loss of life experienced by Task Force Musketeer. In over 5000 missions in Afghanistan, the Gazelle fleet of the BATHELICO logged in excess of 7000 hours of flight and fired more than 60 HOT missiles (a figure that must be compared to the 431 HOTs that were fired during the war in Libya by the French Gazelle)...

Maximum speed: 310 km/h
Maximum weight: 2 000 kg (2 100 kg in Afghanistan)
Cruise speed: 240 km/h
Empty weight: 1 009 kg
Endurance: 1h40 (1hr 20 mins in Afghanistan)
Range: 670 km

Tiger Helicopter - Task Force Musketeer - France
Tiger Helicopter (Photo by E.C.)

TIGER: The EC-665 attack helicopter, better known as the Tiger, made its combat debut in Afghanistan in 2009 and has since been engaged over Libya, Somalia, Mali and Central Africa. The Tiger was the only aircraft in the TF Musketeer not to suffer too significantly from the hot and high environment of Afghanistan. Thanks to its powerful engines and due to the fact that most missions were flown without any external loads (the canon alone being enough in the majority of air support duties) the aircraft’s endurance remained 2hrs 30 mins. Also, unlike the Gazelle which could barely take off with a single HOT, if needed the Tiger could fly with a full load of 30 mm shells and a pair of 68 mm rocket launchers, although in that case, endurance would be severely reduced… Its maximum take-off weight was increased from 6,1 tonnes to 6,4. Originally, only the crew’s seats were armored but for Afghanistan, extra armor plates were added externally on each side of the cockpits and internally, on the floors and at the front, offering protection against 7,62 mm rounds. Also, the lower part of the aircraft’s main fuel tank is self-sealing. Dust filters were added to the turbine’s air intakes prior to deployment in Afghanistan, both fitted with a sand cleaning ventilator. Both the pilot and the crew chief/weapons operator are equipped with Thales TopOwl helmets. These are fitted with side mounted NVGs, the helmet’s visor acting as a screen on which the image is projected. The TopOwl has an integrated helmet mounted sight which can be coupled to the Tiger’s Nexter M781 30 mm canon. When this is done, the canon simply follows the pilot’s head move allowing for reflex shooting on any target the crew lays its eyes on. The crew chief/weapons operator is seated in the rear cockpit and can rely on the roof mounted Stryx sighting system and its optical/IR sensors to locate and engage targets. The footage captured by these sensors can be directly projected onto the TopOwl’s visor if needed. The Stryx’s accuracy is a great asset to ensure positive identification of any target before opening fire. The Tiger offers excellent crew protection in case of crash, as the February 2011 accident in Kapisa showed. The aircraft went down due to a storm and impacted the ground with the tail section being severed. The crew walked out unharmed and the wreck was eventually recovered by a US Chinook. Despite its weight, the EC-665 is more maneuverable than the much smaller Gazelle and much easier to fly thanks to its fly-by-wire controls and rigid main rotor. The Tiger fleet’s availability in Afghanistan stood at over 80% and in any case when undergoing maintenance, an aircraft would not spend more than a week in the hangar before taking to the air again. All servicing was conducted by a maintenance platoon dedicated to attack and recce helicopters servicing. In the case of the Tiger this process was simplified by the integrated maintenance software that monitors the aircraft and its components and recommends a specific intervention when needed in such a way that servicing is no longer done strictly on an hourly basis but when and as needed. A total of seven Tiger HAP was fitted with the full range of improvements for operations in Afghanistan (armor, dust filters, etc), although they were never all simultaneously deployed to the country. The Tiger proved itself as a key asset in the air support and escorting role, giving the French forces in Afghanistan a new deterrent. It was also the sole attack helicopter at their disposal which could stay in the air for over two hours and deliver such deadly accurate fire, thanks to its cannon. Also, while a Gazelle would be left unarmed after firing its single HOT, the Tiger would still have plenty of ammo after firing a 30 mm burst against a target. Despite its very high sophistication, the Tiger also proved its ruggedness by “sleeping” outside while on the FOBs. All in all, in three years of presence in Afghanistan, the French Tiger carried out 2600 missions, logging some 4215 hours of flight and firing no less than 19 000 rounds of 30 mm canon ammunition and some 420 68 mm rockets…    

Maximum speed: 320 km/h
Maximum weight: 6 100 kg (6 400 kg in Afghanistan)
Cruise speed: 260 km/h
Empty weight: 4200 kg
Endurance: 2hrs 30 mins
Range: 740 km

Cougar Helicopter - TF Musketeer (France)
Cougar Helicopter (Photo credit ECPAD)

COUGAR : By the summer of 2012, the Musketeers were still operating a pair of AS-532 Cougar. The type proved itself as a major transport tool, providing critical air mobility to the French troops deployed on the Afghan field. The two examples still on strength at the time both belonged to the ALAT’s 5ème RHC and like all helicopters deployed in Afghanistan had received a number of improvements designed to increase the crew’s protection and the aircraft’s survivability. Side mounted armor plates had been fitted outside the cockpit, supplementing the pilot and copilot’s armored seats and the aircraft’s armored floor. Exhaust shrouds were also installed to reduce the Cougar’s IR signature. A 7,62 mm MAG was mounted on each side door of the helicopter for self-protection. All AS-532s are fitted with flares and chaff dispensers although in Afghanistan these weren’t yet wired to any kind of ECM or missile alert sensor (an upgrade program is currently underway and modernized helicopters are now deployed in Mali), thus making it necessary for the crew to spot any incoming missile and release the decoys timely. Between the weight of the extra kit installed and the afghan “hot and high” environment, the Cougar would find their useful load dreadfully reduced. So much so that with a 35°C ground temperature, a crew of two pilots, one mechanic, two gunners and a commando only four passengers could be taken on board (as opposed to 20 in France)… Despite these limitations the Cougar has performed very well and proved its worth in the transport and MEDEVAC role.

Maximum speed: 278 km/h
Maximum weight: 9 000 kg
Cruise speed: 258 km/h
Empty weight: 4 610 kg
Endurance: 2hrs 30 mins
Range : 776 km 

EC-725 Caracal Helicopter - Task Force Musketeer France
EC-725 Caracal Helicopter (Photo E.C.)

CARACAL: The EC-725 was the first French helicopter in Afghanistan, back in 2006, and was also the last, in 2013. Like the Tiger, Afghanistan was the type’s first operational deployment and its baptism of fire. The Caracal has also been the French Air Force’s only helicopter type to operate in the country in all 13 years of French presence in Afghanistan. In August 2012, two EC-725 were attached to the TF Musketeer, one of them belonging to the ALAT, the other to the Air Force. The two choppers on strength in 2012 were fitted with equipment specifically intended for operations in Afghanistan. Among those were externally mounted side armor plates on the cockpit and exhaust shrouds for the turbines. Unlike the Cougar, the EC-725s are fitted with an active self-protection package comprising a full range of sensors and ECM devices all of which are wired to a series of flares and chaff dispensers which are automatically activated when needed. All Caracal are armed with a pair of cabin mounted MAG 7,62 mm machine guns firing on both sides of the aircraft. Like the Cougar the EC-725s suffered from the increase in weight due to the additional equipment installed in Afghanistan and were affected by the high temperatures and altitude at which operations took place. Thus their useful load is as reduced as that of the AS-532s. Unlike the latter however, the EC-725s are all fitted with a chin mounted FLIR turret, which turns them into effective observation and surveillance platforms, a most useful capability when operating in support of the French Special Forces with whom they frequently and discreetly worked with in Afghanistan. The EC-725 was frequently employed in MEDEVAC and transport duties. As part of the withdrawal from FOB Tora in Surobi, the Caracal were used to airlift supplies with their underbelly sling. The maintenance of the Caracal was carried out by a maintenance platoon dedicated to the servicing of all transport helicopters in the BATHELICO. It comprised both Army Aviation and Air Force personnel and also worked on the Cougar. The alterations made to the standard servicing process due to the afghan environment mainly comprised a more frequent cleaning of the engine’s sand filters and of certain specific valves. The compressors’ blades would also be carefully inspected on a much more frequently scheduled basis to prevent excessive wear from dust exposure.

Maximum speed: 324 km/h
Maximum weight: 11 000 kg
Cruise speed: 262 km/h
Empty weight: 5 715 kg
Endurance: 4hrs
Range: 909 km  


Cet article est dédié à la mémoire de mon ami Yves Debay.

Je remercie l’équipe du centre de presse de Warehouse et tout particulièrement la Lieutenant Charlotte M pour son aide précieuse dans la réalisation de ce reportage. Mes plus vifs remerciements au Colonel Mouret et à l’ensemble des personnels du BATHELICO pour leur disponibilité. Enfin, je remercie le Colonel Burkhard de l’EMA, sans qui ce reportage n’aurait tout simplement pas pu se faire.

For further reading:


- Captain Brice Erbland, "Dans les griffes du Tigre", Les Belles Lettres, 2013.

- General Yann Pertuisel, "De la terre, par le ciel : Récits de combats Afghanistan, Côte d'Ivoire, Libye", Economica, 2014

- General André Martini, "L'Histoire de l'Aviation Légère de l'Armée de Terre (1794-2014)", Editions Lavauzelle, 2013

- Lieutenant Charline Redin, "Afghanistan, regards d’aviateurs", SIRPA Air, 2012 7


- Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°22, COMALAT, January 2012

- Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°21, COMALAT, January 2011

- Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°20, COMALAT, January 2010

- Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°19, COMALAT, January 2009

- Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°18, COMALAT, January 2008

These can be downloaded in PDF here:


Second Lieutenant Guillaume Roland & Second Lieutenant Antonin Tisseron under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Remy Porte, "L’emploi des hélicoptères en contre-insurrection, quels enjeux pour quelles menaces ?", Cahiers de la Recherche Doctrinale, Centre de Doctrine d’Emploi des Forces, January 2012

[1] Captain Zinutti, "Les rotors de la nuit afghane" page 22 and 23 in Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°18, COMALAT, January 2008

[2] P120 to 125 in Lieutenant Charline Redin, "Afghanistan, regards d’aviateurs", SIRPA Air, 2012

[3] "Dossier Engagement de l’ALAT" page VII in Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°20, COMALAT, January 2010

[4] Captain Zinutti, "Les rotors de la nuit afghane" page 22 and 23 in Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°18, COMALAT, January 2008

[5] Captain Zinutti, "Les rotors de la nuit afghane" page 22 and 23 in Revue d’Information de l’ALAT, N°18, COMALAT, January 2008

[6] General Yann Pertuisel, "De la terre, par le ciel : Récits de combats Afghanistan, Côte d'Ivoire, Libye", page 40 to 48, Economica, 2014

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