Eurocopter Tiger in Afghanistan vs Apache Longbow

While much attention has been focused on the exploits of the AH-64D Apache Longbow in Afghanistan, the work of the Eurocopter Tiger in the east of that country has been largely forgotten. However, over the past two years, the Tiger — or Tigre as it is known in France — has won accolades supporting the troops of Task Force La Fayette.

Battle-tested in Afghanistan, where it has been patrolling the mountainous border region east of Kabul, the Tiger also went to war in the skies over Libya in 2011, where it flew escort missions to protect the French Army’s HOT missile-firing Gazelles.

There can be little doubt that the dramas, past and present, of getting this complex machine into service have contributed to it being somewhat overlooked now it is on the front line. Getting the EC665 Tiger into operation has been no easy feat, and, like other joint European procurements, technical problems and political wrangling have beset its development.

The Eurocopter Tiger has its roots back in a 1980s Franco-German requirement for an attack helicopter. The French and German governments were becoming increasingly concerned that their fleets of lightly-armed Gazelle and Bol05 attack helicopters would be simply unable to deal with the mass of armour that would flood across their borders in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

France and Germany decided that they needed a well-armed, manoeuvrable and survivable aircraft that could provide fire support and hold its own against new and emerging threats. Preliminary designs were understandably influenced by the AH-1 Cobra and the AH-64 Apache.

In 1984 the governments of both countries decided that a consortium of MBB and Aerospatiale would be best placed to produce the aircraft. The high cost of development bought a halt to proceedings in 1986, only for the project to be re-launched again a year later.

In November 1989 the consortium was issued a contract to build five prototypes, comprising three unarmed testbeds and two development aircraft built to reflect the differing requirements of France and Germany.

Eurocopter Tiger unleashed

The first Tiger (PT1) took to the air on 29 April 2001. By December 1994 four of the prototypes were flying, comprising all three testbed aircraft, and the French attack version, known at the time as the Gerfaut (gyrfalcon). The first German-configured prototype subsequently took to the air on 21 February 1996. But trouble was already brewing for the programme. The end of the Cold War meant that the numbers of Tigers being ordered was set to be slashed. Germany’s order was reduced from 212 to 138 examples, and later to 80, while France also decided to take 80 aircraft. Both nations wanted the aircraft in service by 2002, but further wrangling over production costs and the location of assembly lines added more delay to the type’s already lengthy gestation.

Fortunately, despite the disputes and cuts in numbers, the aircraft has enjoyed some success on the export market, with sales to Australia and Spain on top of those aircraft being built for Germany and France.

Although they all look broadly similar, there are no fewer than four different versions of the Tiger in service or in development. The HAP (Helicoptere d’Appui Protection, or support and protection helicopter) is now in service with France and Spain. The Tiger ARH (Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter) is now in operational use with the Australian Army, and the Tiger UHT (Unterstiitzungshubschrauber Tiger, or support helicopter Tiger) is operated by Germany. The fourth version is currently under development as the HAD (Helicoptere d Appui Destruction, support and attack helicopter), which is destined for use by the French and Spanish Armies.

But while the French have deployed the aircraft in two theatres of war, the German Army is yet to push its aircraft on to the front line. Although the UHT’s development has been hampered by delays caused by political infighting, funding and technical problems, the Gorman Army insists this is now changing.

The UHT is very different to other Tiger variants. The German Army adopted the mast-mounted, Sagem-built Osiris targeting sight, while under the nose is a forward-looking infra-red system. Rather than the chin-mounted cannon standard on other Tigers, and, indeed, most other attack helicopters, the Germans decided on a pod-mounted weapon. Fitted to the stub wings, the gun(s) can only be fired in the direction of flight. A chin-mounted weapon is still under consideration by the German authorities, but is not currently considered a priority. Integration of other weapons is meanwhile under way, and the Germans have selected the MBDA PARS 3LR as the primary anti-armour weapon for the UHT.

Formerly known as the TRIGAT LR, this weapon recently completed trials at the Vidsel range in Sweden, where three missiles were fired in support of a competition to sell the weapon and helicopter to the Indian Army. The Tiger UHT can also fire the HOT missile. Germany currently has 80 Hgers on order. To date just 23 have been accepted, but recently-unveiled government plans now detail a significantly smaller procurement plan of just 40 aircraft.

Most of the German Tigers are currently based with Kampfhubschrauberregiment 36 (KHR 36, 36th Combat Helicopter Regiment) at Fritzlar, where aircraft and crews are working on mission readiness as well as further flight-testing, certification and troop trials. Other examples are located at the French Army airfield at Le Luc, the home of the joint Ecole Franco-Allemande (EFA) Tiger training school. Tigers are also assigned to Germany’s WTD 61 flight test centre at Manching in Bavaria.

The German Army is now working to get the type on to the battlefield in Afghanistan. Project ASGAKD (Afghanistan Stabilisation German Army Rapid Deployment) is an urgent operational requirement (UOR) programme involving eight Tigers. The project is designed to make the aircraft interoperable with aircraft from other nations involved in operations in the northern Afghan provinces currently headed by German forces.

Eurocopter Tiger in AfghanistanASGARD modifications include engine filters for operations in hot and sandy conditions, a communications equipment upgrade, modifications to the avionics, and exterior lighting system enhancements for night-time operations. The German Army has begun training flight and ground crews to prepare them for a possible Tiger deployment to Afghanistan before the end of 2012. The first batch of four ASGARD Tigers was due to be returned to the German Army in August, and two aircraft have been deployed to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for ‘hot and high’ trials.

The planning for an operational deployment is a positive step in a programme that has been besieged by criticism from a stinging German press.

For a time, German pilot training at Le Luc had come to a virtual halt, forcing crews to retain currency on the old Bol05, while in 2010 a series of wiring issues further frayed the relationship between the manufacturer and customer. The problem — common to all Tigers, including those operated safely by the French Army in Afghanistan—was caused by electrical wires chafing on their harnesses. According to the German authorities the problem presented a safety risk to the operation of the aircraft, and contracts were halted until Eurocopter corrected it, which it duly did in summer 2010, allowing the programme to get back on track.

The French took a different, and with hindsight, more successful route, with their development of the Tigre according to two different versions: the HAP and the HAD. Both versions are set to enter service with French Army Aviation, the ALAT (Aviation Legere de 1’Armee de Terre), while the six HAPs currently used by the Spanish Army will eventually be converted to HAD standard when this version begins to enter service in 2012.

The HAP is essentially the simplest, and currently the most numerous, variant of the Tiger. It is designed to provide support to troops on the ground using unguided rockets and a 30mm chin-mounted, GIAT-built cannon. Meanwhile, for its escort role, it has been equipped to carry the Mistral air-to-air missile. The helicopter is unable to carry any form of guided air-to-ground weapon, principally due to its lack of laser designator. Instead, crews acquire targets and carry out surveillance using the roof-mounted Sagem-built Strix sight.

The introduction of the HAP means the French Army is able to retire elements of its ageing Gazelle fleet, including the Gazelle Mistral, equipped to carry the Mistral air-to-air missile, and the 20mm gun-equipped Gazelle Canon.

Tigre HAPs currently equip the EFA at Le Luc in Provence, while operational examples serve with two of the French Army’s helicopter regiments, comprising the 5e Regiment d’Helicopteres de Combat (5e RHC), while four also serve with the 4e Regiment d’Helicopteres des Forces Speciales (4e RHFS). Both units are located at Pau in south-west France. Two examples serve with the French Army’s GAMSTAT (Groupement Aeromobilite de la Section Technique de 1’Armee de Terre) at Valence where they are used for trials work. The HAP is also in service with the Spanish Army (Ejercito), six examples operating with Batallon de Helicopteros de Ataque (BHELA) I based at Almagro, south of Madrid.

The French Tiger, like its German counterpart, has suffered from a protracted entry into service, but when 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 injured in a Taliban fire fight in Afghanistan in August 2008 there was an outcry. The French public believed that had an attack helicopter like the Tiger been available to troops at the time, fewer casualties might have been sustained. The French government put the aircraft through a series of trials including a hot-weather test campaign at Ambouli in Djibouti, which proved the type’s ability to operate in climates with temperatures so extreme that they reached in excess of 50”C in the cockpit. The deployment also proved that the type could be deployed aboard the French Air Force’s fleet of Hercules and Transall transports.

Combat debut of Tiger

With these deployments under its belt, the Tigre HAP gained initial operational capability (IOC), paving the way for an operational deployment Three Tigres were flown into Kabul International Airport on 26 July 2009, joining the EC725 Caracals, AS532 Cougars and SA342 Gazelle Vivianes that make up Task Force Musketeer. Since then, the Tigres have been protecting the ground troops of Task Force La Fayette and providing escort to the support helicopters and Gazelles. TF Musketeer Tigres have flown in excess of 2,000 operational hours, with pilots recording twice the number of hours during their three-month tours as they would while in France.

Eurocopter TigerCrews eligible for deployment to Afghanistan must have a minimum of 140 hours on the type, but the Afghan workload places an extremely heavy burden on the small cadre of trained crews, numbering just 16 available at the time of writing. The Afghan mission has seen the loss of a single Tigre following a heavy landing in February 2011, but this aircraft was quickly replaced. Tigres in theatre are fitted with sand filters, extra armour around the cockpit and encrypted communications equipment

The region is a challenging environment for the Tiger, as it is for any helicopter. Kabul sits at just under 5,900ft, bringing the issues of ‘hot and high’ operations into sharp focus. During the summer, when temperatures climb to over 35”C, the crews are cleared to use 100 per cent engine power, but in such conditions the Tiger flies with a single rocket pod, and even this is only loaded with a handful of rockets, f However, a full load of ammunition is retained for the 30mm chin-mounted cannon.

During Operation ‘Harmattan’, the French contribution to operations over Libya, four Tigres were operated from the French Navy assault ship Tonnere, from which they supported the missile-carrying Gazelles in providing air support to the Free Libyan forces in the process of overthrowing Col Gadaffi’s regime. On one sortie, a Tigre was filmed landing on a beach, apparently to collect a Free Libyan flag from a young girl. The ALAT has traditionally worked closely with the French Navy to support amphibious operations and specified the addition of a folding main rotor head, allowing the aircraft to be maintained below decks on helicopter-capable assault vessels.

But while both of these deployments have been successful, the HAP is limited in its ground-attack capabilities, since it is only able to use its cannon and unguided rockets. This leaves the elderly Gazelle to take on the precision attack role with the HOT guided missile. Therefore, France and Spain are jointly developing a second, more capable version of the Tiger to meet their precision attack needs.

While the HAD, which first flew on 14 December 2007, may look virtually identical to the HAP from the outside, it has been designed to pack a much more powerful and more accurate punch.

E for enhanced

Production HADs will be fitted with the MTR390E (E for enhanced) turboshaft engine, which delivers 14 per cent more power than the MTR3902C used on the HAPs and UHTs. This extra power is necessary to counteract the weight added to the airframe by the HAD’s additional systems, which include an improved optical sighting system with laser designator, improved ballistic protection and a new electronic warfare system featuring a Thales radar warning unit, laser warning receivers and missile launch detectors coupled to the MBDA Saphir chaff/flare dispenser. Currently, France has 40 HADs on order, while Spain will buy 18 — designating them as HAD-Es (E for Espana), and converting its existing six HAPs to HAD-E standard.

The first prototype HAD (F-ZWBP) was equipped with the full mission system suite intended for production aircraft, but was not fitted with the new, uprated engines. The prototype has been involved with weapons trials, as each purchasing nation has opted for different weapons fits. Spain has chosen the Rafael Spike-ER anti-armour missile for its Tigers while France has opted for the AGM-114 Hellfire II as its missile of choice, with firing trials carried out at Cazaux in September 2009.

The second prototype HAD was converted from one of the original Tiger prototypes (F-ZVLJ) and retrofitted with the new engines. It made its first flight on 30 June 2010 and is involved in the engine certification process. Installation of the new engines required significant internal modifications to help deal with the higher temperatures involved, but the aircraft still retains some 85 per cent commonality with other members of the Tiger family. The second prototype also features improved ballistic protection for the crew and an updated self-protection system.

So far, most of the test flying has been carried out by crews from the French procurement agency, the DGA (Direction Generale de l’Armement), and its associated flight test centre, the CEV (Centre d’Essais en Vol). The DGA will continue trials with the first production French Tigre HAD, which made its first flight from the Eurocopter plant at Marignane in December 2010, while Eurocopter in Spain has taken responsibility for the Spanish HAD prototype. The first French HAD should be delivered to the Army in 2012, and the first Spanish example should also be delivered this year.

Tiger down under

Australia is flying perhaps the most advanced version of the Tiger currently in operation, the ARH or Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. The Australian Army has purchased 22 ARHs to replace its fleet of OH-58 Kiowas and UH-1s. Although essentially the same as the Tiger HAP, the ARH features a laser designator fitted to the Strix sight, allowing the aircraft to deploy the Hellfire II anti-armour missile. Australia has also equipped its Tigers with the 70mm unguided rocket system produced by Forges de Zeebrugge (FZ), in contrast to the TDA 68mm rocket system adopted by the French and Spanish.

The Tiger was chosen for the ARH requirement in 2001 under the Australian government’s Project AIR87, competing against the AgustaWestland Mangusta, the Denel Rooivalk and Boeing Apache. The Australian government signed a $1.3-billion contract with Eurocopter in December 2001, and the first aircraft took to the air at Eurocopter’s Marignane plant in February 2004. The initial two ARHs arrived at Oakey in Queensland in December 2004. Four of the 22 ARHs were built at the Eurocopter plant in France, the other 18 being constructed in Brisbane by Australian Aerospace, Eurocopter’s Australian subsidiary.

What followed was a rollercoaster development, and when Australian Aerospace failed to meet the initial operational capability milestone in June 2007 because of programme difficulties experienced in Europe, the Australian government halted payments to the company. Both companies later achieved a resolution, and payments were restarted with a new delivery schedule arranged.

Today, 21 out of the 22 aircraft have been delivered and the aircraft are being worked up by the Darwin-based 1st Aviation Regiment of the Australian Army. A handful of aircraft are being operated by the School of Army Aviation based at Oakey. So far, the aircraft have not been accepted into operational service but they are progressing towards that goal.

Recently, Australian Tigers have been involved in Exercise ‘Talisman Sabre’, which allowed the Army to test the deployability of the aircraft, as part of Australia’s aspiration to send the aircraft to Afghanistan. Officers concluded that despite some spares issues the aircraft could be deployed to the region for daylight missions, but that it would be six months before they would be able to operate by night in support of Australian forces in Oruzgan Province.

Sale prospects

The Tiger has some catching up to do in terms of foreign sales, too. Despite being blooded in combat, the type has not been able to chalk up further export orders since Spain signed up in September 2003, and has lost much ground to the AH-64 Apache.

Despite suggestions that the aircraft might be purchased by Saudi Arabia, the deal fell through, while the attack helicopter competition in India saw the Tiger dropping out fairly early because it was unable to participate in field trials. The Indian competition has since reportedly been won by the AH-64D. A bid to the Turkish Army was similarly unsuccessful, despite Eurocopter offering a re-engined version powered by LHTEC T800 or CTS800 turboshafts. The Tiger was demonstrated to the Libyan armed forces at the 2007 LAVEX show, at the 2009 Dubai Airshow, and at the 2011 LIMA airshow in Malaysia.

Eurocopter is still confident of receiving further orders for the type, and is offering the Tiger to meet the South Korean government’s expected requirement for 36 heavy attack helicopters (AH-X). This bid is being pursued with Eurocopter highlighting its newly established close relationship with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), with whom the company helped develop the Surion utility helicopter. Should Eurocopter emerge successful from the AH-X competition, it could well open up opportunities for further lucrative orders in the Asia-Pacific region.