PARIS ― The French Air Force is for the first time promoting its special forces unit in a bid to recruit civilians as an addition to the existing 750 personnel assigned to the Special Operations Command.
The service previously recruited solely from the military but is now looking to diversify the talent pool with a mix of experienced and young, unskilled recruits from the civilian world, Air Force Gen. Louis Fontant said Jan. 11 during a weekly briefing at the Armed Forces Ministry.
That recruitment stands in stark contrast to a previous policy that forbade any communication about the special forces, which draw on the Air Force, Army and Navy for personnel and equipment.
“Before, there was strict confidentiality about special operations, so the special forces were not allowed to talk about themselves,” he said. The recruitment problem lay in “not communicating. Now we have to do it.”
How many positions are available?
The service is looking to recruit some 40 personnel for general duty before training them for specialist roles such as sniper, transmission specialist or translator. France has produced a high-production video to promote the Air Force special forces.
The small number of 40 is so the special forces unit can make “as small a footprint” as possible in operations, Fontant said. There is “financially considerable” backing, as equipment is made readily available, he added.
The service seeks a highly diversified yet coherent unit, capable of operating quickly, at long distance and with fire power, he said. Regarding the latter, a special forces team of up to 10 can call in an airstrike from a Rafale fighter jet.
The core of the air special forces comprises 640 personnel assigned to commando paratroopers, air transport and helicopters. These units engage in at least one operation per year and draw on support from specialists in the conventional forces.
The Orleans air base, central France, supports Commando Parachute Group No. 10 and 3/61 Poitou Transport Squadron.
France would like to see a 280-strong commando unit, but actual staffing is at 250, which is why the service is actively recruiting.
What are their responsibilities and capabilities?
The commandos detect targets, gather intelligence and transmit to friendly forces. They designate targets and assess damage following airstrikes.
There is a team dedicated to inspecting a landing area and checking the ground for parachute drops and special forces landings. The base trains for missions including sabotage, destruction, intelligence gathering and recovery of personnel.
The 3/61 Poitou Transport Squadron flies C-160 and C-130 aircraft. These tactical transports can drop paratroopers at low, medium and high altitude, with commandos wearing oxygen kits as they jump at more than 4,000 meters. The aircraft also serve as flying command posts and radio relay stations. The DHC-6 light planes fly dangerous logistics drops and fly out the wounded.
The 1/67 Helicopter Squadron at Cazaux Air Base, southwestern France, formally received full operational capability for special forces in December. The Caracal helicopters can be refueled midair, a capability highly valued for current missions, according to Fontant.
Beyond the core special forces units, the service draws on some 100 in support teams from conventional forces.
Support units include a team to detect arms and drugs, while a command and control team based at the Evreux air base, northern France, sends specialists to deploy long-distance communications. Those links allow special forces to talk to the command post and fighter jets.
There are also loadmasters to check cargoes and paratroopers as they jump, often at night and at low altitude.
In other support, there is a fire brigade unit that handles nuclear, bacterial and chemical threats, as well as a group of Army personnel that builds deployed air bases.
The Normandie-Niemen 2/30 fighter squadron at Mont-de-Marsan Air Base, southwest France, provides reconnaissance, fire support and airstrikes.
Another support unit is the Belfort squadron, which flies six General Atomics Reaper UAVs. These drones have electro-optical sensors and are “absolutely indispensable” for the special forces in the Sahel region, Fontant said.
The Reapers are due to be fitted soon for electronic intelligence missions, and they will eventually be armed, according to the Armed Forces Ministry. The latter capability would “shorten the loop” between observation and attacking a target, Fontant noted.
What are the drawbacks?
Fontant took up the post of commander of the Air Force special forces in September, a position created in response to France’s rising contribution to foreign campaigns in recent years.
The Air Force is seen as key to France operating over vast distances in the the sub-Saharan Sahel theater, allowing the military to avoid land-based ambushes and mines. Travel by air also provides an element of surprise.
The service delivers firepower with its combat aircraft, backing up special forces that are deployed in small numbers and have limited firepower.
There is “excellent availability” of 90 percent for transport aircraft deployed, helped by maintenance staff assigned to the special forces, he said. There is, however, generally low availability in France of an aging fleet of C-160 Transall aircraft. The Air Force has had to extend its service life, which requires high maintenance.
The special forces are also dealing with poor servicing of C-130 Hercules airlifters.
“We are confronted ... essentially with an industrial problem,” Fontant said. “Perhaps the change of the service company will solve the problem.”
Ogma, a Portuguese company, provides service for the C-130.
“In any case, we hope the gradual entry into service of the A400M over the next few years will resolve the logistical problem for conventional and special forces,” he said.
The Airbus A400M fleet by the French Air Force has an availability of 40 percent, a source close to the program said. Maintenance, including checks on an interim fix on the propeller gearbox on the engines, pull some A400Ms out of service, while others are undergoing a retrofit. Of the 13 A400Ms delivered to date, five are flying.
A heavy vehicle ordered for the special vehicles “is not satisactory,” Fontant said. “That is where we are. It is up to the joint chief of staff and DGA [Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office] to decide.”
Renault Trucks Defense adapted its Sherpa Light for the VLFS heavy vehicle for the special forces, but that unit has so far failed its certification.