The Role of Helicopters in French Army Operations


2012-08-09 SLD interviewed Colonel Frédéric Gout, French Army, Commanding Officer of the French Army’s 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment (5th RHC), based in Pau about the role of the 5th RHC in French operations. The interview was conducted at Pau in mid-2012.

While the role of helicopters is essential in the evolution of French Army operations,  in the operation over Libya the role of helicopters took center stage and was challenged with new requirements.

Colonel Gout underscored that the French Army has much operational experience with deploying overseas, but the Libyan operation was different.

It was different because it was operating off of ships at night, plus the helicopter forces were operating as the lead, not the support, element.

A Puma Operating of the Mistral During Bold Alligator 2012. Credit Photo: Murielle Delaporte

Gout noted, “What was new and what we never did before was the conjunction of all these elements: taking off from a vessel, flying in the middle of the night and flying above water with no point of reference.

We had to fly in the middle of the night and to get close to enemy shores and enter the mission to strike enemy forces via gunships or missiles on pre-assigned targets or targets of opportunity. Resupply was only possible aboard ship, as resupply was not possible on Libyan soil.   And for us, resupply by air was possible only for the Caracal helo of the French Air Force.  For the rest of the aircraft, tanking was done on board the ship.


And the threat of loss of a helo with its crew needing recovery was constant. And unlike normal missions, we were flying not in direct support of our ground forces.   Operations deep into enemy territory were done at distances of up to 120 kilometers, but were done independently of ground force support, and were done on an ad hoc basis with objectives of precision strike focus.”

Other overseas missions were shaped around support for the ground forces.

Gout continued, “In the Ivory Coast, we worked in support of the entire range of ground force operations. It was not the helicopters, the infantry or the armor vehicles alone, but the unity of all these capabilities that forced Laurent Gbagbo to come out of its bunker.”

Editor’s Note: In 2010, Gbagbo was arrested by the French Forces “Licorne”, then detained for several months in a town, in the north of the country, in a city called Korhogo. In November 2011, he was extradited to the International Criminal Court, becoming the first head of state to be taken into the court’s custody.

And in Afghanistan, Gout continues, “we are engaged in missions of direct support to ground forces. In these missions, we are not the one leading the major part of the mission, rather the ground forces are the ones holding the terrain. We provide air support to allow them to advance more rapidly and to allow them to proceed with emergency evacuations in case of IEDs, for example. Helicopters are often called for missions and must fly very frequently day or night, as we are forced to come out despite the presence of Forward Operating Bases or FOBs.”

The Colonel in the interview described the impact of various missions on learning and adaptation of the forces noting:

“Thanks to the lessons learned from inter-services missions, we can change the rules for doctrine, maintenance, materiel evolution and also for training. That was the case for Afghanistan. By identifying the shortcomings, we analyzed how to handle them. Here our motto at the 5th RHC is “reactive adaptation.”  Our sole objective is the success of the mission and we adapt depending on the situation. It is achieved in a rapid, direct and systematic manner. The Center for Doctrine of the French Army and the Inter-Service Concepts Center (CICDE) has this capacity to rapidly integrate the lessons learned from overseas operations. It is also true for the STAT (Technical Section of the French Army) in terms of the materiel evolution, of the schools’ training, and it is also true at the regiment level in terms of the use of force applied from lessons learned”

Quotes taken from the interview “Le 5th RHC” in Soutien Logistique et Défense (Summer 2012).