Twice a day, every day for the past several weeks, the sky over Dushanbe has echoed to the combined roar of Snecma M53 and M88 engines on French fighters taking off on missions to neighboring Afghanistan
Though French forces have been present in Tajikistan for five years now in support of operation Enduring Freedom, the same is not true of the French Air Force Rafales which deployed to this theater for the first time in mid-March 2007, shortly before the first days of spring. In this part of the world, spring is the occasion for the festival of Nowruz marking the Persian New Year, the start of a new cycle joyously celebrated by millions of families across a large portion of Central Asia.
This year the new flagship fighter of the French Air Force, the omnirole F2 standard Rafale is making its official debut in an external theater of operations, along with its naval sister operating off the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.
Altogether, six F2 Rafales are operationally involved in Central Asia to validate the new fighter: three single-seat Navy Rafale M/F2s (12F squadron) from the carrier and three twin-seat Air Force Rafale B/F2s (1/7 fighter squadron) fromDushanbe International Airport.
FIRST “AIR” DETACHMENT
Sincemid-March 2007, three Rafale Bs from1/7 fighter squadron “Provence” have been present to reinforce the Serpentaire deployment to Tajikistan, a deployment that has now become permanent. For five years now, the Serpentaire unit, essentially comprising three Mirage 2000D fighter-bombers from Air Base 133 at Nancy-Ochey (reinforced by three Mirage F1CR reconnaissance aircraft from Air Base 112 at Reims on a seasonal basis), has contributed to close air support missions for allied forces engaged in operations against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Though theMirage 2000Ds have consistently fulfilled this mission from the outset, initially from Manas in Kyrgyzstan then from Dushanbe in Tajikistan, the arrival of the first Rafale B/F2s will give extra force to French strikes.Where theMirage 2000D can carry two 250kg GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, the Rafale can carry four or, if necessary, six. After a technical stopover at Air Detachment 188 in Djibouti, the three Rafale B/F2s (aircraft nos. 312, 314 and 318) from 1/7 fighter squadron “Provence” at Air Base 113, Saint-Dizier, touched down in Central Asia at Dushanbe on 12March 2007. Two days later, one of the aircraft performed its first operational flight over Afghan territory armed with four GBU-12 bombs as part of a four-hour mission. A few days later, on 28 March, a Rafale M/F2 from 12F squadron, operating from the Charles-de-Gaulle carrier, became the first omnirole F2 Rafale to drop bombs in combat. The operation was designed to relieve Dutch troops under attack by Taliban fighters. On 1 April, a Rafale B/F2 from 1/7 squadron fired a GBU-12 against an enemy target – a cave in the Helmand region believed to contain Taliban fighters. The two operations marked the real baptism of fire for the new Rafale F2.
In Afghanistan, the Mirage 2000Ds and Rafales are part of a NATO coalition force comprising a total of 60 fighter-bombers – US OA-10s and F-15Es, UK Harrier GR.7s and 9s, NATO F-16s and German Tornados, all based directly in the theater of operations at Bagram, Kabul, Kandahar andMazar-e Sharif, plus US and French naval aviation operating from international waters off the coast of Pakistan. And this does not include the B-1B bombers flying 20- hour missions from the Chagos archipelago further south in the Indian Ocean. Operating under the control of US Central Command based at Al Udeid, Qatar, all the missions flown by the air component of ISAF/OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) are planned with a high degree of reactivity in order to ensure as far as possible immediate support for land forces engaged against the Taliban as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as well as special forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA). Aircraft operating as part of the Serpentaire unit operate under French control (“RepFrance Air”) from a center now installed in Kabul, following a period when it was located on the US base at Bagram.
This is the highest French authority in theater for all aspects of air operations, without whose approval no French strike can go ahead.
Allied troops currently deployed to the Afghan theater comprise almost 40,000 men (and women) fromalmost 30 nations. To thismust be added a further 8,000 low-profile US troops under British command. At the present time, NATO represents a key component of the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan. It directly assists the Afghan authorities in establishing security and stability in order perhaps to open the way one day to reconstruction and effective governance of the country. The mission, however, is complicated by the presence in the country’s mountainous eastern region of Islamic fighters who have infiltrated the region from Pakistan and whose sole objective is to continue the struggle against the government in Kabul that started back in the Soviet era more than three decades ago, and restore the Taliban emirate that was overturned in the fall of 2001, if need be by controlling all kinds of trading in illegal goods, the most problematic of which is heroine, since it constitutes the foundation for a whole parallel economy that many cultivators depend on for survival.
In theater, the Rafales for now are flying only daylightmissions, accompanied by a Mirage 2000D charged with identification and laser illumination of targets should the use of force become necessary. Refueled by Boeing C-135 tankers from GRV 0/93 “Bretagne” or by NATO tankers, these aircraft provide air support for ISAF and NATO forces on a daily basis. Together with the Mirages, the Rafales provide presence, show of force or close air support. With its ability to carry six GBU-12-type laser-guided bombs and its superior range compared with the Mirage 2000D, the Rafale F2 supplies real added value to the Serpentaire air component. It also ensures a significant increase in firepower and range, and in loiter time, if needed.
RAFALE AND LASER-GUIDED BOMBS
The first Rafale F2s deployed by the French Air Force in theater are two-seaters, a version that is currently operated only by the French Air Force. Four complete 1/7 squadron crews are present in Dushanbe, along with around 40 mechanics. In the opinion of Lieutenant Colonel Louis Pena, who heads the Serpentaire unit in Dushanbe, the advantage of a two-seat fighter for air-to-ground missions is beyond dispute. Having been amply validated on the Mirage 2000D in the Balkans, the two-seat solution is ideal for extended missions, where two pairs of eyes are better than one. The same solution has been adopted by the Americans on their F-15E Strike Eagles, F-18D Hornets and F-18F Super Hornets which are also being used extensively in the Afghan theater. Deprived of its own autonomous target designation capability for another two years, the Rafale will eventually, some time before 2010, be equipped with the Thales Damocles laser designator, which will be a standard feature of the F3 version. Nonetheless, according to Lt Col Pena, within the context of the Serpentaire operation, the Rafale and Mirage come together to form a real team, with the systems of each aircraft forming an ideal complement to the other to fulfill the mission.
Thanks to the forward sector optronics (FSO), the RBE2 radar, the SPECTRA system and Link 16, the Rafale manages inflight security for the patrol and provides all necessary information up the moment the strike is launched, a decision that is made in liaison with Forward Air Controllers alongside the troops on the ground. Permanently updated via the tactical data link, the information available to the patrol removes any ambiguity about the target to be attacked as a function of the “squares” notified on the Air Tasking Order, an operation that is also confirmed by visual identification using the Atlis II pod on the Mirage 2000D or simply with binoculars.
Based on experience over Afghan territory, where targets can be hard to find and identify due to the generally mountainous terrain and the variations caused by changing light conditions, French crews have acquired the habit of taking along a pair of stabilized, high-magnification Navy binoculars, which the navigator in the back seat uses to keep a close watch on the ground during extended patrols. This empirical means of observation has proved to be a valuable asset on several occasions, with the wide field of view visual observation providing a useful complement to the narrow field of view available to the Atlis II pod operator on the Mirage 2000D, particularly in avoiding the risk of collateral damage before launching a GBU-12. In view of past occasions when coalition aircraft, mostly American, have inadvertently hit civilian targets or even friendly forces, for several months now crews have had a list of around 2,000 no-strike sites. Close air support operations –always performed in constant encrypted radio contact with the forward air controllers – are generally conducted from an altitude that places the Rafales and Mirages out of range of the various portable air defense systems that are assumed to be present in the Afghan theater. In reality these constitute the sole threat, in the form of ex-Soviet two- and four-barrel 23mm systems which are still scattered all over the country. Underlining the absence of any air-to-air threat, the Rafales in Afghanistan fly without Mica missiles, a welcome reduction in load on an aircraft that is already carrying more than 10 tons of fuel and bombs at the start of each mission.
The new ability to launch laser-guided bombs – GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-22 Paveway III – initially planned for 2008-2009 on the Rafale, was brought forward specifically for the deployment to Afghanistan and was achieved in record time. The accomplishment is to be credited above all to the CEAMtest center inMont-de-Marsan and the French Navy CEPA test center. The qualification campaign was pursued relentlessly all through the winter, over a period of four months, practically seven days a week, while acceptance trials were being performed on new Rafales that had come off the Bordeaux- Mérignac production line and while pilots and ground crews recently transferred to the squadron were undergoing conversion training at Air Base 113, Saint Dizier. It culminated in a firing campaign performed at the end of February from Air Base 120, Cazaux, a campaign that qualified the 1/7 squadron crews prior to their deployment to the Afghan theater. All went smoothly, thanks to the fact that the Rafaut AT730 three-bomb rack designed for the AASM weapon already qualified for the Rafale, can accommodate the GBU-12/22 without any modification. Also because the Rafale weapons system, managed by theMDPU central processing unit, can adapt to any configuration required by the user by automatically modifying the Rafale’s load distribution according to the weapons load. Apart from the autonomous firing capability, currently covered by the Rafale-Mirage combination, the only capability that the Rafale B/F2 crews from1/7 squadron currently really miss is the 30mm Nexter 30M791 cannon that was initially planned. Delayed apparently for budgetary, rather than technical, reasons, the integration of the cannon, according to pilots we spoke to in Dushanbe, would offer the advantage of allowing a show of force that would have a greater psychological impact on rebels on foot or in 4WD vehicles, as was amply shown by FrenchMirage F1s in Africa, where a simple warning volley was enough to stop an enemy advance. A necessary intermediate degree between the 250kg bomb and … nothing! In spite of that, the men in the Serpentaire unit are very happy to have the Rafale for their combat missions, an aircraft whose mission readiness, in spite of the Spartan conditions at the “DétAir” Base, has proved to be very good, close to 100%. No major failures have been reported on systems or engines, and minor issues have been resolved on the same day. For this reason, Lt Col Pena, who is a former Mirage 2000D pilot, is very happy with the Rafale and the plus that it brings to operations in the Afghan theater: “The aircraft is reliable and performs itsmission well. That bodes well for the French Air Force and what it can expect from the ultimate, F3 version of the Rafale.” The Rafales of 1/7 squadron are scheduled to remain in Tajikistan until the end of summer 2007, and the four crews will be relieved every two months. A subsequent deployment could see the arrival of three single-seat Rafale C/F2s from 1/7 squadron in order to test the capabilities of the single-seater alongside a Mirage 2000D crew. It is clear that, for the French Air Force, the operational philosophy of the Rafale is still open, and much remains to be done or to be discovered.
Jean Michel Guhl, May 2007