After 59 years of service, the French Air Force is retiring its last C-160 Transall transport aircraft.
To mark the occasion, a Transall painted with a special livery has begun a farewell tour of several bases around France. The journey began in Évreux-Fauville Air Base, west of Paris, from where the 64th Transport Wing was operating the plane.
Developed by the French-German consortium Transport Allianz, the Transall is a twin-engine aircraft that can transport approximately 16 tons of freight, 91 passengers, 60 equipped paratroopers, or 62 wounded on stretchers in medivac configuration.
The Luftwaffe retired its own Transall at the end of 2021. To replace the lost capacity, the two countries formed a Franco-German transport squadron in Évreux operating four French and six German C-130J transport aircraft, out of which half will be the refueling variant of the Hercules, the KC-130J. The squadron will not reach initial operational capability until the autumn of 2022.
The rest of the missing transport capacity will be filled in by the Casa CN 235 and Airbus A400M transport aircraft already operating.
There is however one area that could remain diminished in the French Air Force for at least a few years. In 1989, two Transall C-160 were retrofitted into the C-160G Gabriel variant dedicated to electronic reconnaissance. Until recently, these spy planes could still be seen contributing to NATO observation efforts above the Black and Baltic Seas. But in 2021, it was decided that the Gabriels would bow out along with their transport counterparts.
In January 2020, Dassault Aviation and Thales were awarded contracts as part of the Archange airborne strategic intelligence program to convert three Dassault Falcon 8X for similar purposes. But with the first plane expected for 2025, France’s electronic surveillance is set to be limited for the next three years.
In November 2021, France launched three CERES [French acronym for ‘Space Electromagnetic Intelligence Capability’ – ed. note] satellites, giving the country its first electromagnetic intelligence capability from space.
In the air, two ALSR ‘Vador’ aircraft, a militarized version of the King Air 350, and a third one to be delivered in 2023, will have to make do, though their performance hardly compares to the C-160G. The Reaper MQ-9 Block 5 drones can also embark an electromagnetic intelligence payload. Finally, after their recent modernization, the venerable Dassault-Breguet Atlantique 2 of the French Navy could also contribute.
“Although France has other intelligence capabilities of electromagnetic origin, the C160 Gabriel provided a specific capability, to which satellites or drones cannot be substituted,” warned the French member of parliament Jean-Jacques Ferrara in a recent report.