Athena the art of special ops

Jan Kraak reports from Mont-de-Marsan, France, on the latest edition of the Armée de l’Air’s Exercise Athena


Integration between air and ground assets continues at a steady pace. The Rafale fighter can now drop laser-guided bombs on targets designated by an MQ-9 Reaper, and a Joint Terminal Air Controller can instruct both planes while viewing live feeds from the aircraft through an encrypted data link. All photos Jan Kraak

74 |

In preparation for deployment overseas, Armée de l’Air Special Forces participate in Exercise Athena, a work-up training event regularly staged in south-west France. This year’s first edition, Athena 2018-1, was staged between January 15 and 26 and involved 300 personnel and seven aircraft deployed to BA118 Mont-de-Marsan. Other participating aircraft operated from their respective home bases. The majority of activity took place on the Captieux firing range, a 45-minute car drive from BA118.

Special Forces Air

Special Forces units of the Armée de l’Air are referred to as the Special Forces Air. There are three such units; Commando Parachutiste de l’Air 10 (CPA 10), Escadron de Transport (ET) 3/61 ‘Poitou’ and Escadron d’Hélicoptères (EH) 1/67 ‘Pyrénées’. CPA 10 and ET 3/61 are based at BA123 Orléans, whereas the EC725 Caracal-equipped EH 1/67 operates from BA120 Cazaux.

ET 3/61 operates a mix of DHC-6 Twin Otter, C-130 Hercules and Transall C-160s that for the most part are on loan from other squadrons. All three types are typically used for dropping parachutists or cargo and delivering equipment, which often comprises two or three vehicles to be sent out on armed patrols. The C-130 and C-160 can also be equipped to serve as a mobile command post and relay station. Commanding Officer of the Armée de l’Air’s Special Forces, General Fontant, said:

“Many Special Forces operations take place far away from the command centres. This means we need a relay between Special Forces commanders on the ground and the people giving the green light for the mission. The C-130 can act in this role because it is equipped with a camera, so that we can have an overview of what is happening on the ground.”

The Twin Otter is much smaller than the Transall and the Hercules, which makes it a flexible asset that can perform multiple tasks. General Fontant said: “The DHC-6 can land on strips of approximately 500 metres, carrying 1.4 tonnes. The aircraft is used for logical tasks, dropping parachutists and especially medevac tasks. A Twin Otter can land quickly just about anywhere.

This allows us to fly in medics so they can apply first aid and transport a wounded soldier over relatively long distances to the appropriate medical centre.”

Except for two aircraft assigned to the Groupement Aéro Mobilité de la Section Technique de l’Armée de Terre, the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre test and evaluation unit, the AS532UL Cougar fleet is now entirely based at Pau with the helicopters being assigned to 4e RHFS and 5e RHC.

Commandos assigned to CPA 10 have two main tasks: support of fighter aircraft and support of transport aircraft. When supporting fighter operations, commandos identify targets on the ground, gather information about the targets, coordinate an airstrike on the targets and perform post-strike battle damage assessment.

Supporting tactical transport planes such as the C-130 and C-160 involves identifying drop zones or areas with unprepared and unhardened surfaces for assault landings. Commandos have to determine if the zone has the required dimensions, if the soil is suitable for landing a tactical transport and if there are any obstacles around the area. Once this is done, the commandos must secure the site to allow aircraft to land.

Besides the three units listed, all of which fall under the Commandement de Opérations Spéciales (Special Operations Command), there are other cells of selected people within regular Armée de l’Air units that deploy with the Special Forces on short notice. Referred to as Modules d’Appui aux Opérations Spéciales (MAOS), each cell provides a range of competencies that Special Forces units do not have, such as expertise in logistics, engineering or chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Lastly, there are also referent squadrons that work on optimising procedures between aircrew piloting Armée de l’Air fighter jets or drones and Special Forces troops operating either on the ground or on board helicopters from the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (Army) 4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (Army Light Aviation’s 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment or 4 RHFS). Referent squadrons are; the Rafaleequipped Régiment de Chasse (RC) 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niémen’ based at Mont-de- Marsan and Escadron de Drones (ED) 1/33 ‘Belfort’ based at BA709 Cognac.

In January 2018, ED 1/33 officially became an MQ-9 Reaper squadron operating a fleet of six aircraft, which will double in size in the next few years. Five Reapers are based at Niamey in Niger in support of Opération Barkhane. Commenting on the Reaper, General Fontant said: “French and allied drones have become an essential tool for our Special Forces operations in the Sahel.

Currently our Reapers are equipped with optronics [electro-optical and infrared sensors] and we hope they will soon be outfitted with electromagnetic sensors, so we can intercept communications.”

Athena 2018-1

Explaining the objectives of exercise Athena, General Fontant said: “This exercise is organised by the Armée de l’Air to prepare for Special Forces operations that will take place in the upcoming months. This means the personnel who participate have already been selected and have been preparing for deployment. Athena is not the final step of their preparation, but allows participating forces to pass any outstanding qualifications required before they leave.”

Athena is an important event in the overall qualification process, because it allows Special Forces personnel to work together in coordinated scenarios with other dedicated special ops’ units, including MAOS cells and reference units, which is a requirement to qualify.

Mont-de-Marsan base commander Colonel Gaudillière explained why Athena is held in south-west France. He said: “There are several Special Forces units based in south-west France, and others can get here relatively quickly. Another big advantage is that we have multiple permanent zones, like the range at Captieux, in which we can operate unrestricted at any flight level, so we can simultaneously execute air and ground operations.” Captieux is a 10,000Ha (24,700-acre) military range comprising a live firing range in its western sector where fighter jets and helicopters can fire their cannons and drop different types of air-ground munitions. The eastern sector comprises a housing complex and different size firing ranges (200m, 400m and 1,000m) where Special Forces troops can fire different armaments, including explosives. The Armée de l’Air is currently studying the possibility of constructing a dirt runway at Captieux for assault landing training with the DHC-6 and A400M. The 1,000 x 30m runway could be finished in the next two to three years, allowing the Armée de l’Air to train in even more realistic scenarios.

Mont-de-Marsan air base itself is well suited to largescale exercises. Colonel Gaudillière said: “The Special Forces reference unit [RC 2/30] is based here, so our personnel can be quickly integrated to the different phases of the exercise. We have the capacity to house 600 extra personnel. Furthermore, we have the infrastructure from back when this base was part of the nuclear deterrent force [Mirage IV bombers], so there is a fenced-off area on base, which can be easily transformed into a Special Forces camp for this exercise.”

Mont-de-Marsan is home of the Centre d’Expertise Aérienne Militaire (Military Aviation Centre of Excellence or CEAM) which is a big advantage for hosting the exercise. How? By facilitating work with CEAM experts on procedures and testing new equipment, currently on the A400, C-130 and C-160, all of which are operated by ET 3/61. Some testing was conducted during Athena 2018-1.

Although the actual exercise scenarios were not accessible, participating personnel trained for the entire set of tasks, included in their operational envelopes. Commenting, General Fontant said: “Exercise scenarios are very similar to what our Special Forces encounter during deployment. Experiences of recent operations are brought into the training scenarios. The main difference is that we are here to train, which means we operate more during daylight. However, once deployed the procedures and tasks that we train here, will be carried out under the cover of darkness.”

A dog handler assigned to CPA 10 poses with his Belgian Shepherd. One of the CPA 10 dogs was decorated in Paris on December 7, 2017 for its actions in Burkina Faso during a deployment under Opération Barkhane.


Special Forces from the three main branches of the French military participated in Athena 2018-1, as did several MAOS cells from different units. CPA 30, which recently moved to Orléans, sent a canine unit that will be deploy with CPA 10. The dogs are trained to detect explosives and hidden weapons and can neutralise terrorists. Escadre Aérienne de Commandement et Conduite Projetable (Air Command Wing) based at BA105 Evreux provided a mobile command centre that allowed the different participants to communicate with each other via either satellite or encrypted Link 16 connections. Centre Air de Saut à Voile from BA123 is the Armée de l’Air’s para-jumping centre of excellence, which supported the participating units during day and night operations. The Section Intervention Nucléaire, Radiologique, Bactériale et Chimique (SINRBC, Nuclear, Radiological, Bacterial and Chemical Intervention Section) from BA120 Cazaux sent personnel with expertise in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear warfare.

“The DHC-6 can land on strips of approximately 500 metres, carrying 1.4 tonnes. The aircraft is used for logical tasks, dropping parachutists and especially medevac tasks.”

General Fontant, Commanding Officer of the Armée de l’Air’s Special Forces

Of the ten Twin Otters delivered to the Armée de l’Air between 1980 and 1983, only five remain in use: two are assigned to ET 3/61 at BA123 Orléans, while the other three are operated by the secretive GAM 0/56 based at BA105 Evreux.
A flight engineer lowers an airborne tactical extraction platform, which is immediately readied by the Special Forces team on the ground. The troops can get on to the platform and hook-up within a few seconds, after which the helicopter crew can immediately take off.

Discussing the need for such a unit in a special ops exercise General Fontant said: “Potentially, we could be confronted with these kinds of threats, but our Special Forces can also be tasked to gather data on the potential violation of international treaties regarding, for instance, biological weapons by one of the parties in a conflict. The personnel from the SINRBC are competent to collect and analyse samples and report the results.”

Engineers from the 25th Régiment du Génie de l’Air (25th Air Engineering Regiment) based at BA125 Istres also participated. Operating from Capitieux, the regiment’s goal was to study the soil in different areas around the site to assess the feasibility of using them as an unhardened and unprepared runway, and, more specifically, to find a place for the DHC- 6 Twin Otter to land during ops in the second week of the exercise. Data gathered is likely to be used in determining where a permanent unhardened and unprepared runway can be located at Captieux.

Finally, construction and infrastructure specialists from the Groupement Aérien d’Appui aux Opérations (Air Operations Support Group) based at BA106 Bordeaux- Merignac, built all of the necessary temporary structures for the exercise.

In addition to Armée de l’Air units, the Armée de Terre sent helicopters from 4e RHFS based at Pau, and deployed Commandos from the 13e Régiment de Dragons Parachutistes (13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment) and the 1e Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment). The French Navy also sent personnel from two of its units: Commando Hubert and Commando Kieffer.

RC 2/30 Normandie-Niémen

As a reference squadron for Special Forces operations, RC 2/30 is typically involved in exercises like Athena. Joint operations can entail ground forces, as well as other air elements. Commander of SPA 93 (93rd Squadron) Captain Vincent provided an account of RC 2/30’s role as a Special Forces referent. He said: “We are a privileged actor in terms of developing procedures so that they are in sync with developments in equipment and in order to improve interoperability. At the same time, we act as the voice about the developments and ongoing dialogue toward all the other units within the Armée de l’Air, particularly fighter units.”

SPA 93 is one of the three assigned to RC 2/30.

Reference squadron does not mean the unit has more access to working with Special Forces during operations. Any front line squadron can be tasked to Special Forces missions. For instance, the Opération Barkhane fighter detachment comprises Mirage 2000C, Mirage 2000D and Mirage 2000N fighters. Captain Vincent explained: “Our role is to have dialogue, cooperate and to study how we can improve different techniques, tactics and procedures.”

RC 2/30 was involved in organising the personnel, aircraft and facilities made available for the exercise. During the preparation phase, the unit also helped to arrange which types of missions would be conducted and how they would be executed

The airborne tactical extraction platform is an alternative to ropes used for Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE). Troops are above one another when using the SPIE, but are all at the same level on the extraction platform, which allows for a quicker ingress and egress.

The French fighter fleet is working increasingly with the latest weapon system in the Armée de l’Air’s inventory, the MQ-9 Reaper. Captain Kara, a Rafale pilot who has just arrived at RC 2/30 from ED 1/33 after operating the MQ-9 for the last few years, explained how the Reaper and Rafale operate together. He said: “The Reaper brings the chain of command closer to the Rafale. A Reaper will arrive on scene before the Rafale, and only leave after the Rafale has left. This provides the mission commander with a realtime visual overview of what is happening and the ability to give real-time instructions to the Rafale crew. The mission commander can thus change or cancel a strike.”

The Reaper also complements the Rafale in other areas. Captain Kara said: “A Reaper can also act as a spare [strike asset]. They can designate targets, including targets more difficult to see from a fighter jet. For their part, a Rafale provides reaction, range and flexibility in terms of the types of armament [available for a strike].”

Rafale fighters also work with the aerial elements of the Special Forces, such as the Tigre attack helicopters assigned to 4e RHFS. Pau is not far from Mont-de-Marsan and the Tigre crews regularly visit BA118 to train with Rafale crews. Discussing the co-operative work undertaken, Captain Vincent said: “Because we communicate over the radio with Tigre helicopters during a mission, there is a real benefit in being able to brief before we take off.

For Athena, we trained with Tigre and ground elements that are already in an area or that are dropped off during the scenario. At that point, coordination between Tigre and Rafale is done by a forward aircraft controller on the ground.” The Armée de l’Air’s goal during future editions of Athena is to further the interoperability between different branches such that a Rafale or a Mirage 2000D could, for instance, designate a target for the Tigre in the same way that the drones are already doing. AI

The EC725 Caracal is equipped with a five-blade rotor, a MAG-58 machine gun and an aerial refuelling probe. To improve its autoprotection and assault capabilities, in the near term the Caracal will be equipped with additional heavy weapons.