PARIS — The French armed forces can only fly a third of their helicopter fleets, such is the poor state of service and support for military rotorcraft, a French Senate report said.
“Only one in every three helicopters is able to take off today,” Sen. Dominique de Legge said July 12 in a statement on his report for the Senate Finance Committee.
Last year, 300 helicopters of the total fleet of 467 were “immobilized,” parked either with a service or a company, he said.
There was a “worrying” lack of availability despite an increase of more than 56 percent in spending on helicopter service, rising to €645 million (U.S. $755 million) in 2017 from €412 million in 2009, he said. That marked an annual increase of almost 5.8 percent and accounted for 1.5 percent of the defense budget.
That lack of availability was due to a host of reasons, including a complex organization for service, 12 types of helicopter spanning three generations and overly strict and unsuitable rules of airworthiness, the report said. There was also a high rate of use in overseas deployment and weakness in the supply chain.
Those chronic problems “prevented the conduct of certain missions, particularly in France,” while working in tough conditions led to exhaustion of service personnel, de Legge said. There was also a lack of training, which weakened young maintenance crews, he added.
There have been attempts to boost availability, including a 2014 helicopter action plan and a modernization drive for aircraft maintenance launched by Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, the report said. The latter saw an aeronautics maintenance office set up and a clarification of the roles of each of the public and private sector actors.
While these were steps in the right direction, “vigilance” was needed on companies’ profit margins, links should be maintained between industry and armed forces, and contractual obligations should but deliver client satisfaction, he added.
The report called for stronger financial management, greater efficiency in operational support and closer relations with industry. The problem may be “chronic but it is not unsolvable,” the report said.
The multiyear military budget for 2019-2025 failed to deliver funds for helicopter service, with consequences for aging helicopters such as the Puma, the report said. A big hit is first delivery of a joint light helicopter based the Airbus Helicopter H160 pushed back to 2028.
As of the end of last year, the Army accounted for 65.5 percent of the total 467-strong helicopter fleet, with 306 units, the report said. The Navy had 17.8 percent with 83 units, while the Air Force had 16.7 percent with 78 units.