The French Air Force French Air Force is interested in the military version of the King Air 350ER. The King Air 350i is illustrated here. (Beechcraft)
PARIS — The French Air Force is eyeing the King Air for ISR missions, while France’s special operations forces are keen to fit mission packages to their Hercules airlifters, a US source said.
The Air Force is studying the twin-engine Beechcraft King Air as part of its search for a light aircraft to deliver a “development of force,” the source said.
Meanwhile, France’s special operations forces are looking to add various capabilities to their 14 Lockheed Martin C-130s, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), gunship and low-level air-drop, the source said.
Robbin Laird of the ICA consulting firm, based here and in Washington, said interest in the C-130 packages reflects the growing relationship between US Marines and French and Spanish special operations forces.
“French forces are moving more closely with the Marines,” he said.
In November, 60 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit came to the Garrigues camp in southern France, where they exercised with 100 Foreign Legion troops from the 6th Light Armored Brigade, and flew Marine V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor with French Tiger and Gazelle combat helicopters, according to the specialist magazine Soutien Logistique Defense.
France is studying bids to upgrade the C-130s’ avionics and cockpits from Marshall Aerospace, Rockwell Collins and Sabena. The avionics upgrade is a response to air traffic requirements, Air Force officials said.
Asked about the interest in the King Air, Air Force officials issued this statement: “The acquisition process is still going on, in line with the plans in the multiyear budget law. ... Consequently, we are unable to give any indication on the acquisition method nor on the platforms which could meet the requirement.”
On the C-130 capabilities packages, the Air Force said, “We never comment on the special operations forces’ needs.”
Lockheed referred questions to the French government, while a Beechcraft statement noted its offering represents a “strong platform for other potential programs.”
A US defense official said, “I have heard France is interested in these capabilities. ... We would certainly support these acquisitions, as they will increase their ISR capability and boost interoperability with our special operations forces.”
Laird said the French Air Force is among various organizations attracted to the military version of the King Air 350ER.
Laird said light turboprop planes in general have shown themselves to be useful in the ISR role, “which is usually a post-insertion asset to support troops.” Such planes also can armed with the Hellfire missile, which is seen as a big advantage, he said.
But Laird said France is mulling whether its next ISR platform should be unmanned. “There are advantages each way,” he said.
The French Air Force is flying MQ-9 Reaper UAVs from Niger to back up special forces in northern Mali. On Jan. 30, Air Force Lt Col. Christophe Fontaine told journalists the two UAVs were filling the ISR mission “extremely well.”
But he noted that UAVs require no fewer personnel than manned ISR aircraft. The MQ-9s are being flown and maintained by a big ground crew, including technicians from manufacturer General Atomics.
“There is nothing more manned than an unmanned,” Fontaine said.
Laird concurred, adding that UAVs have a relatively high loss rate.
Today, the French Air Force flies two C-160 Gabriel aircraft for ISR missions. The UK flies the King Lear 350ER Shadow R1 on signals intelligence missions, which mainly take place in Afghanistan. Laird said the global market for such aircraft is modest; it can be measured in hundreds, not thousands of planes.
Meanwhile, the French Customs service is late in flying the first of eight King Air planes ordered to replace its 12 F406 planes, Air & Cosmos reported in November.
The King Air, with a unit price of about €15 million (US $20.3 million), was due to start operations early last year. But the complexity of its sensors, including optronics, radars and other systems, delayed the start of operations to this year, the report said. ■
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.