Gazelle Helicopters in Service with the French Army

A total of 340 Gazelles were procured for the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT), 171 SA.341Fs with the Turboméca Astazou IIIC turboshaft, which entered service in 1969, and 161 of the later SA.342M that was a dedicated anti-tank variant with the more powerful Turboméca Astazou XIVH engine.

The SA.341Fs ended up being modified to three different configurations. Sixty-two were converted to support gunships with an SFOM 80 sight and a fixed GIAT M621 20 mm cannon mounted on the left, designated SA.341F/Cannon. Forty were converted to anti-armour gunships with an SFIM optical sight above the cockpit and armed with four HOT anti-tank missiles (ATMs) on pylons, designated SA.341M. They could also be equipped with two rocket launchers for eight SNEB 68 mm EAP unguided rockets. Many of the rest of the SA.341Fs were configured as unarmed scouts with an SFIM M334 Athos sight.

Gazelles could be fitted with an upturned exhaust diffuser to reduce the helicopter’s infrared (IR) signature from heat-seeking missiles and sand filters for desert warfare. Some Gazelles were later updated with the advanced composite rotor blades of the Aérospatiale Écureuil helicopter.

The ALAT obtained a variant of the SA.342L that featured an improved Fenestron tail rotor and was powered by the 859-shp (641-kW) Astazou XIVM engine for improved hot and high operations. Designated the SA.342M, it first flew on 11 May 1973. The SA.342M featured a revised instrument panel, a SFIM PA 85G autopilot, Sextant Avionique Nadir self-contained navigation system and Decca 80 Doppler night-flying equipment.

Fitted with an M397 optical sight, the SA.342M could carry up to 1,540 lbs (700 kg) weapons payload that included four or six Euromissile HOT or Aérospatiale AS11 short-range, wired-guided ATMs, 7.62-mm machine guns or a 20-mm GIAT M621 single-barrel revolver cannon mounted on the skids or on external weapons pylons. Up to seventy were upgraded in the 1990s with a SAGEM Viviane stabilised direct view/IR/laser roof-mounted sight to allow night firing of HOT missiles, designated as SA.342M1 Gazelle Viviane. Thirty were retrofitted with the Astazou XIV M2 turboshaft, designated SA.342M ATAMs, and were armed with four Matra/MBDA Mistral air-to-air missiles (AAMs) that were first fired from a Gazelle in 1990 with a Sextant T2000 sight.

By the mid-1980s a number of the Escadrille d’Hélicoptères Légères (EHL) of the ALAT’s Régiment d’Hélicopteres Anti-char (RHC) were each fully equipped with ten Gazelles. These included 1 and 2 EHLs of 5 RHC with SA.341F Gazelles for liaison and forward observation based at Pau in the south of France, and 6 RHC with 1 EHL with SA.341F Gazelles and 2 Escadrille d’Hélicoptères Anti-char (EHA) with SA.342M Gazelles with HOT for anti-tank duties based at Compiègne.

Other major units were the Groupes d’Hélicoptères Légères (GHL)s that carried out liaison duties with the Gazelle. These included 11 GHL at Nancy/Essay and 12 GHL at Trier, each with three EHLs equipped, and 13 GHL at Lers Mueaux with one EHL each equipped with ten SA.341F Gazelles.

The ALAT training system started at the École de Spécialisation de l’ALAT (ESALAT) at Dax, where SA.341F Gazelles were used for basic training. At the Groupement ALAT de la Section Technique de l’Armée de Terre (GALSTA) at Valence, experienced co-pilots could qualify as captains on the SA.341F. The École d’Application d’ALAT (EAALAT) at Luc/Le Cannet carried out instrument and tactical training with fifteen SA.341F Gazelles, and later SA.342Ms. Smaller Gazelle units included the Escadrille ALAT de l’Armée (EALAT 1A) at Baden-Oos, the Escadrille de la Direction Centrale du Matérial (EDCM) at Bourges and the Escadrille de l’Ergm Alat (EERGM) at Montaubin.

During the Cold War, ALAT regiments were part of larger airmobile units. The 4th Division Aéromobile (4 DAM), which was created in 1985, specialised in airmobile combat within the French Rapid Reaction Force. It was set up to conduct autonomous combat operations and stood ready to engage WARPAC armoured units if they launched an attack on the West from beyond the Iron Curtain.

ALAT SA.341F/SA.342Ms were deployed to Operation Desert Storm from 4 DAM/5 RHC with Task Force Alpha based in Saudi Arabia, close to the Iraqi border. As part of the French Operation Daguet, the Gazelles supported the French Army during the brief ground phase of the war in February 1991, destroying a number of Iraqi tanks with HOT missiles. The 4 DAM was disbanded in 1995.

In February 1997, Ploče Airfield in Croatia became a French-led Multinational Army Aviation Battalion of Multinational Division – Southeast (MND–SE) of the NATO-led Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR). The base operated the French Bataillon de l’Aviation légère de l’Armée de Terre, or BATALAT, with four SA.330 Pumas and four SA.342M/M1 Gazelles until November 2002.

Helicopters from 4 RFHS are frequently deployed to the French Navy’s Mistral-class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) as part of a Helicopter Strike Group. Training is focused on all aspects of helicopter operations from an LHD, including low-level navigation over the sea in radio silence and day and night deck landings in all weathers. In 2010 Gazelles from the LHD FS Tonnerre deployed to Operation Atalanta, the EU anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa, fired missiles at a Somali pirate mother ship.

During Operation Harmattan, the 2011 Libyan campaign, LHDs FS Mistral and Tonnerre launched a series of daring ALAT helicopter raids to destroy hostile armour hidden in the desert. Gazelle and Tiger attack helicopters took off for a series of night missions, during which the Gazelles fired 431 HOT anti-tank missiles at a large number of targets, including armoured vehicles and artillery positions.

The annual Jeanne d’Arc exercise is a five-month amphibious deployment that takes a French LHD and its Helicopter Strike Group to the Far East, during which the vessel conducts multilateral exercises to develop cooperation and knowledge of this area of deployment. The ports of call provide an opportunity to strengthen defence ties with Djibouti, India, Singapore, Vietnam, China, Japan and Australia during the 24,000-mile (40,800-km) round trip.

The ALAT’s permanent DETALAT based in Djibouti fulfils a crucial mission for the projection of the French forces in the Horn of Africa and its helicopters have accumulated more than 90,000 flight hours since 1977. It is currently equipped with four SA.330B Puma helicopters and two SA.342M Gazelle/HOT helicopters. Djibouti is the ideal location for tactical training in a desert environment; the nights are very dark in Djibouti, providing ideal conditions for NVG operations. The DETALAT regularly supports the 5eme Régiment Interarmes d’Outre Mer (5e RIAOM), which is a French marine regiment stationed in Djibouti that carried out joint exercises with the Armée de l’Air 1/88 Corse fighter squadron of Mirage 2000s.

The ALAT’s Bataillon Mousquetaire 5 (BATHELICO) is located at the ISAF base at Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan. The battalion was deployed in June 2012 until December 2014 with four Gazelles and four Tigers to undertake ground attack, close combat air support, escort, reconnaissance and overwatch duties. During the deployment, the Gazelles conducted 7,000 flight hours during 5,000 missions and fired some sixty HOT guided missiles in support of ground troops or in the destruction of ‘high-value targets’, including weapons caches and vehicles.

Operation Barkhane was launched in August 2014 as the successor to the French Operation Serval, which began in January 2013 against Islamist terrorists in northern Mali with twenty-eight ALAT helicopters, including eight HOT-armed Gazelle Vivianes based at Gao Airport. At the same time the ALAT deployed another four Gazelles and six Pumas out of its base at Bangul in the Central African Republic as part of Operation Sangaris. The helicopters in the theatre were used to escort convoys, perform reconnaissance missions and, when necessary, to combine forces with ground troops. The helicopters spend days far away from their home base, moving between locations in the field with the ground troops. France ended this operation in October 2016, while Operation Barkhane continued into 2019.

In July 2016, 1, 3 and 5 Régiment d’Hélicoptères de Combat were formed based at Phalsbourg, Étain and Pau respectively and currently operate a total of seven Escadrilles equipped with Gazelle Vivianes. Also based at Pau is 4 Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales with one flight equipped with Gazelles. In the field, 4 RHFS aircrews operate in small detachments, each comprising a Gazelle and Puma. Air and ground crew train in all environments – arctic, desert, mountain, jungle and at sea. A Gazelle can deliver a team of two combat swimmers close to a hostile shore or river estuary to carry out undercover reconnaissance and sabotage.

Equipped with twenty-three SA.342M Gazelles, 3 RHS is taking the lead in ALAT Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) trials of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear operations. In 2018 its aircraft were deployed to the Sahel region of Chad, Mali and Niger, Djibouti and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, while its base at Étain is now part of the future CAP HNG 2021 project, which includes opening up to civil and commercial aviation and the renewal of infrastructure, facilities and equipment.

Six of the 3 RHS Gazelles were also modified to carry out trials of a new multi-functional information system, two of which were deployed to the Système d’Information Terminal de l’Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (SIT-ALAT), while another two were deployed to the Central Africa Republic (CAR). A GPS tracker gives a real-time 3D view of the battlefield to the crew of the helicopter, with all the information being displayed on a single screen, giving the patrol leader the position of each of his operational elements and the real-time tactical situation. This information is accessible not only by aircrews but also by the chain of command. Mission planners can customise maps with additional data as the enemy positions, undercover corridors and other strategic elements and all this data can be updated during the mission.

The data can be downloaded for after action reviews (AARs). This modern tool has been designed to be compatible with the next generation of helicopters, as well as the Tiger and the NH90 Caiman, and will be compatible with the new Système d’Information du Combat Scorpion (SICS) that will be one of the main components of the French Army’s next generation of land vehicles.

The SIT-ALAT system is the most significant element of the Gazelle’s current upgrade programme, which will allow it to remain relevant despite the age of the platform. A total of fifty-eight SA.342M1 and twenty-three SA.342MAs, which are used for crew training and as an airborne sniper platform equipped with the M134 Gatling MiniGun, are being fitted with the SIT-ALAT system. The ALAT is also modernising its Gazelle helicopter fleet to meet the ICAO standards that regulate aviation across the world. As a consequence of the legal aspects of coalition-led operations, they will also receive the Système d’Enregistrement en Vol d’Images Référencées (SEVIR) system, which provides real-time recording of all gun and missile firing actions.

More than 100 SA.342L/M Gazelles remained in ALAT service in 2018, plus another twenty SA.341Fs in secondary roles. They are intended to remain in service for at least another decade before being fully replaced in the scouting and anti-tank missions by the EC665 Tiger HAD and the future light helicopter, the H160M.

Airbus Helicopters is working with the French Ministry of Defence to develop the H160M, which was selected to fulfil a French Armed Forces tri-service requirement for almost 170 rotorcraft. In April 2017, the H160M was selected by France as the basis for its hélicoptère interarmées léger (HIL) programme, which seeks to replace multiple fleets of aged types, including the SA.342 Gazelle, which will be a hard act to follow. A firm contract to officially launch the H160M is expected in 2022, supporting first deliveries after 2025.