PARIS — The French Army Air Corps is well on the way to creating a fourth helicopter brigade and has been upgraded to a more integrated aviation command, Army Maj. Gen. Olivier de la Motte said Feb. 12.

The Army aviation command will draw on 5,000 personnel and be backed with a working budget of €1.2 billion (us $1.4 billion), he told a conference on air-land combat organized by weekly magazine Air & Cosmos.

"That is not bad for a small and medium-sized company," he said. The headquarters staff will see a 50 percent increase to 150 personnel.

Helicopters saw a high level of activity last year, with the "neutralization" of some 10 tons of ammunition, he said. Pilots are now flying long distances across abrasive desert conditions with extreme desert climate conditions in the Barkhane operation. The force has previously flown urban operations in Mali, mountainous Afghanistan, and across the sea in Libya.

A more independent greater independence of the Army Air Corps is part of the Army in Contact project, an effort to sharpen major drive aimed at sharpening the organization of the service, he said. There is also a more horizontal rather than vertical approach with the services, as the aviation command trains crews, maintenance staff and supports the services in the field. The command also supports the special forces.

The fourth helicopter brigade, standing up July 1 and based at Clermont Ferrand, central France, is a major element in the role of the aviation command, he said. The new brigade will be staffed by 1,000 personnel and fly 162 helicopters, with some 60 percent of the aircraft assigned.

Among projects are upgrade of the Tiger attack helicopter to Mark 2 and 3, NH90 Caiman helicopter adapted for the special forces, and a light joint helicopter to replace the Gazelle.

Tiger upgrades will include digital systems, rockets and missiles, and night vision, de la Motte said. The Gazelle has been adapted to digital but the other helicopters are still based on control dials.

The Army Air Corps supports 147 reconnaissance and attack helicopters, including Gazelle and Tiger, 115 transport and assault helicopters, including Puma, Cougar and Caracal, and 67 specialist aircraft, including Fennec for training pilots, he said.

There are 450 pilots, and 2,200 maintenance personnel, with the command supporting operations of the Army, Air Force, Navy and paramilitary Gendarmerie.

There are 32 helicopters in overseas deployment, and 23 on standby for operations. The service has lost one Tiger, downed in Afghanistan, and a second Tiger has been badly damaged.

Army Air Corps and Héli Union, a services and training firm, backed the conference, which was held at the French Aero Club.