NATO forces in Afghanisitan will see some new air assets supporting operations there in the coming months, with the French government having decided to deploy special operations capable Eurocopter EC725 helos to the area, as well as air force Rafales. For the air force Rafales, it will be the first overseas deployment, after the service formally fielded the multi-role, twin-engined fighter last year – the French navy has already cruised with its Rafales, although those are at an earlier build standard.
For the EC725, it is the second deployment already, although the helicopter has been fielded less than a year. The operational debut was in Lebanon. The twin-engine helo features missile, radar and laser warning receivers, as well as a dispenser system, but so far no laser-based countermeasures.
France also is still trying to get the Rafales fully up to speed for its deployment, and is in talks with Raytheon about purchasing some Enhanced Paveway 2 laser-guided bombs with GPS capability to give them an all weather strike capability.
The French moves come as a decision was made to pull out special operations ground personnel, who have long been deployed to Afghanistan. One French military observer suggests the pull out of ground forces was driven by political calculus. It was a risk mitigation effort in the run-up to late Spring presidential elections, he argues. There was concern among some quarters that having a large number of ground forces exposed to potential losses could lead to damaging headlines during the electoral season.
The French army also is mulling deployment of its Sperwer unmanned aerial vehicle, a tactical system already used in Afghanistan, most heavily by the Canadians, although Dutch forces are also equipped with the drone.
Meanwhile, German politicians continue their long debate on whether or not to send six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan to meet a request for additional support by alliance commanders. There is now a consensus emerging in Germany that the government doesn’t require new legal authority for the Tornado deployment, but political forces from the left and the center are urging such a move nonetheless.
For now, Berlin feels no pressure to decide. NATO foreign ministers are salted to meet January 26th, and only after that get together will the federal government make its decision, according to a foreign ministry representative.
The six aircraft that would deploy belong to the 51st Immelmann reconnaissance squadron . The unit saw its first overseas deployment in 1995 as part of military operations in the former
Yugoslavia. The aircraft carry reconnaissance systems of two KS153A optical cameras, built by Zeiss, as well as infrared line scanner and recce management systems from Honeywell. The suite has a digital data storage system, but currently no real-time data feed which NATO commanders have said they have great demand for.
The German air force also is trying to quickly buy a combat proven, medium-altitude unmanned aircraft to meet their NATO obligations, although that wouldn’t be fielded in time for deployment this year. Although funding in Germany is currently tight, the debate over the Tornado deployment could trigger funding support for purchasing a UAV, whose deployment would be politically more palatable in a future scenario.
Military obligations in Afghanistan have already demonstrated they can break free extra money in Germany, where modernization spending is hard to come by. Last month, the defense ministry received approval to triple its planned procurement of Dingo 2 armored vehicles to 100 from 33 this year.