War in the Mountains

Text and photography by Roelof-Jan Gort and Bjorn van der Flier of
The fourth edition of Exercise Baccarat, organized by the French Army’s (Armée de Terre) 4th Air Combat Brigade (4e Brigade d’Aérocombat - 4e BAC), took place in the French Alps during the second and third weeks of September. The 24th Infantry Regiment (24e Régiment d'Infanterie - 24e RI), the only army unit composed exclusively of operational reservists, took part in it and, as with the previous Baccarat exercises, the focus was on high-intensity combat, but this time in a mountainous environment.

Thirty-eight aircraft (seven different types) from the 1st, 3rd and 5th Combat Helicopter Regiments (Régiment d'Hélicoptères de Combat – rhc), as well as 1,600 soldiers, mainly from the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade, were mobilized for the exercise. As with previous exercises, Baccarat 2020 had a placed some emphasis on cooperating with allies. The United Kingdom contributed three wah-64d Apache attack helicopters from the 4th Army Air Corps Regiment, along with a detachment of 45 soldiers. The wah-64d Apaches were based in Valence-Chabeuil Airport in the southeast of France.

The exercise took place on “a quadrilateral area of 150 by 250 km and included a live-fire zone in the Mailly and Sissonne training areas, as well as an exercise zone in the region of Valence – Grenoble – Gap – Briançon”. Although it has been reduced compared with previous editions, this exercise pursues the same objective, namely “to validate the know-how acquired by the combined arms units at the end of a year of training, facing a conventional enemy equipped with the latest generation equipment, capable of leading high-intensity symmetrical combat".
According to the strategic vision unveiled by the Army Chief of Staff, General Thierry Burkhard, the French Army must now prepare for “high intensity” combat, which has become a “very likely option”.

The French Army is preparing to face an enemy comparable with itself, namely a professional army. In other words, it is no longer simply training to fight armed groups installed in Mali, Chad, Niger or Burkina Faso. From January 11, 2013, France has indeed been involved in the Sahel. On the ground, the fight against terrorism is essentially based on intelligence and the destruction of a poorly trained, poorly organized, poorly equipped and often very young enemy. Currently, 5,100 French soldiers are deployed in the Sahel-Saharan strip. Given that Operation Barkhane (the large anti-insurgency operation in Africa) is France's largest operation outside its national territory, the Army must know how to face the challenges of the future, in addition to current threats.

During this 2020 edition of Baccarat, we were welcomed to the Grenoble Le Versoud Airfield, which at the time had been turned into a temporary air base. About twenty helicopters were based there during the exercise. The 5th rhc from Pau had sent ec665 Tiger and nh90 Caïman helicopters, while the 1st rhc from Phalsbourg contributed nh90 Caïmans and sa 342m Gazelles, and the 3rd rhc from Etain had sent sa 342m Gazelle and Puma helicopters. The ealat (French Army Aviation School) had sent some as555un Fennecs which were used for training and liaison missions.
Beside these helicopters stationed at Grenoble Le Versoud Airfield, additional helicopters were parked and operating from various sites, including forward arming and refueling points (FARPS) in the mountains.
We visited the army base at Varces-Allières-et-Risset, home of the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade, where a complete mobile military camp had been set up. It was the central operations centre from which the entire operation was coordinated and managed. There was also a mobile military hospital which had been recently declared operational.

We spoke with Lieutenant Laurent of the 1st rhc, who is normally based in Phalsbourg-Bourscheid in the northeast of France, about the experience he had gained throughout his career and the now recent Exercise Baccarat.

Lt Laurent has been flying the nh90 Caïman for about four years and has about 500 flight hours on this helicopter. Lt Laurent said, “I chose to fly on the nh90 Caïman because it was brand new in the French Army. I have to say that it is a fantastic machine and it is much better than its predecessor, the Puma, on all fronts. Flying in the French Alps is an exercise in itself. The rapidly changing weather, the steep slopes and the powerlines are all factors to take into account. But we can fly without any restrictions, because we have no height restrictions, due to the powerful engines”.
During Exercise Baccarat, nh90 Caïmans flew different profiles, and all normal troop duties were tested in the high mountains. The versatility of the nh90 Caïman came in very handy, flying with or without a door-gunner, fast-roping from the side doors or via the ramp at the back, spie (Special Purpose Insertion Extraction), rigging, which is a rapid extraction procedure in which several commandos hang on a rope under the helicopter. Rigging is especially important in the Alps because it is not always possible to land. Depending on the configuration, the nh90 can transport up to sixteen fully equipped commandos.

The nh90 Caïman is able to fly in difficult conditions, thanks to its modern sensors and electronics. Forward Looking Infra-red (flir) is displayed on a integral display in the pilot’s helmet and gives him/her all the necessary information he/she needs.
The rotary assets of the 4th bac include the 1er rhc, based in Phalsbourg, close to Strasbourg and the border with Germany, include a mixed fleet of nh90, Tigre and Gazelle helicoptes. The 3ème rhc, located in Etain, is equipped with Gazelles and Pumas. The largest unit, situated in south France, is 5ème rhc, which operates a mixed fleet of Gazelle, Tigre, Cougar and Caïman helicopters.

Pau is also home to the 4ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (rhfs) that provides air support to the French Special Forces.
French Army Aviation Helicopters
(Aviation légère de l’armée de Terre - alat)

The 4e bac is currently equipped with about 150 helicopters, with a number of aircraft deployed overseas on a rotational basis. About 20 percent of the 4e bac’s helicopters took part in Exercise Baccarat.

The sa330b Puma has been the main troop transport aircraft for the alat from the 1970s and has gone through a number of upgrades, including composite blades, a defensive aids suite and a communication upgrade. The alat plans to continue flying the Puma until 2030.

In 2007, the French government placed an initial order of 34 nh90-tths to replace the Puma in the long term. The first fully operational nh90 was delivered in 2012, followed a year later by the official hand over to the 1er rhc at Phalsbourg. The first deployment of two nh90s to Mali took place in 2014.

The alat expressed a need for 150 nh90-tths. This was later revised to 133. In 2010, an order of 34 units was confirmed. In September 2018, with the deliveries to the 1er rhc completed, the 5er rhc in Pau began its transformation. In 2020, 43 machines were online. Accustomed to operational engagement outside France, the nh90 was involved in an extraordinary mission: Operation Resilience, which, from March 18 to April 5, 2020, dedicated part of the air resources of the Armed Forces Ministry to the transfer of covid 19 patients.

From 1973, the alat has operated the light single-engine multi-role Gazelle in a number of configurations, and despite their age, as with the Puma, it is planned to keep Gazelles in service until 2030. The current sa342m variant is night-vision goggles (nvg) compatible and is primarily an anti-tank platform, capable of carrying four tube-launched mdba hot missiles. It was originally fitted with the sfim apx M397 sighting system, but has been upgraded with the safran Viviane sight. This is a stabilized, roof-mounted sight with a direct through-the-lens view or an infrared image and a laser rangefinder effective up to 5 km. It is mounted above the system operator and required structural reinforcement to the roof due to the sights’ increased weight. The AS350’s main blades were retrofitted on the Gazelle to increase its performance and maximum take-off weight (mtow).

For a relatively young brigade, Exercise Baccarat was a real test for those who
participated in it.

Air mobility is not unique to the 4ème bac and working with its European allies is an opportunity to develop tactics and develop mutually beneficial procedures, which can be carried forward in the future. Every exercise of this scale provides units with the opportunity to implement realistic scenarios combining rotary and ground maneuvers, taking advantage of the changing pace offered by the helicopters.
We would like to thank Press Officer Gabriel, Captain Sandra, captain Nathalie and the crew of the 1er rhc nh90 Caïman for their hospitality and all their help during our visit.