PARIS — The latest official update on readiness of French military helicopters show an average availability less than 50 percent, with the Tiger attack helicopter only ready for operations a quarter of the time.
The French Army fleet of 59 Tiger attack helicopters was last year ready for operations an average 25.6 percent at a total annual maintenance cost of €88.61 million (U.S. $98.2 million), the Defence Ministry said in response to a written question from Member of Parliament François Cornut-Gentille.
The Tiger's 2016 availability compares with 21.4 percent in the previous year and is based on an average age of 5.5 years.
A low availability of French military helicopters and high cost of maintenance have sparked concern, leading Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to pledge last November an availability boost to an average 50 percent across the fleets, with special attention paid to the Tiger.
"Topics such as a second aircraft carrier and cybersecurity grab the public limelight, but maintenance lacks that nice image," Cornut-Gentille said.
The French Navy's 15-strong fleet of NH90 Caïman helicopters had an availability of 38.4 percent, up from 32 percent, at an annual maintenance cost of €47 million, with an average age of 3.4 years.
The 17 NH90s flown by the Army were available 41.4 percent, down from 47.6 percent, with an annual cost of €61.53 million and average age of three years.
The Cougar, with an average age of 26.3 years, was available 9.9 percent, down from 12.2 percent, with a bill of €40.27 million.
"Our essential capabilities are much constrained by the very low rate of availability of our helicopters, on average 38 percent," MP François Lamy said of Army helicopters in a Nov. 2 lower house debate on the 2017 defense budget, reported business magazine Challenges.
"The Navy has 17 helicopters, 10 of which are in maintenance," said parliamentarian Gwendal Rouillard, who was referring to the NH90 and pointed out that the 17th was at the time grounded due to a mechanical problem.
That lack of availability was largely due to an unduly complex system of maintenance shared out between government offices including the Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office; two service wings of the Defence Ministry, namely Integrated Structure for Aeronautic Maintenance, and the Industrial Aeronautics Service; and private sector operators, Lamy said.
Airbus Helicopters supplied the Tiger, and NHIndustries — a joint venture held by Airbus, Leonardo and Fokker — delivered the NH90.
"Basically, this system does not work," Lamy said. To underline the impracticality, he pointed to the Tiger's routine service lasting 183 days, when the actual average period was 383 days.
Le Drian said he had launched an emergency plan to boost availability to average 50 percent in 2019, and to increase the readiness of the Tiger, which has seen a faster rate of wear and tear due to a damaging fine sand encountered in sub-Saharan Africa on the Barkhane mission.
"Supporting the French armed forces is a top priority for Airbus Helicopters, and we are working closely with our customers to meet their operational needs," an Airbus Helicopters spokesperson said.