France creates office to improve military aircraft readiness
France will set up in March an aeronautic maintenance department in a much-needed bid to boost aircraft availability and cut soaring costs for the Air Force, Army and Navy, according to Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly.
The new office will oversee service support for fighter jets, transport planes and helicopters, where generally more than half a fleet is grounded because the aircraft is not ready to fly.
“Service is our capability to respond,” Parly said Dec. 11 on a visit to the Evreux air base, northern France. “Service is our sovereignty.”
The department, part of a broad reform of aircraft servicing, will be created March 1 and run on joint services lines, she said, adding that the department head will report to the joint chief of staff.
Parly said she has a “personal priority” to improve military aircraft service, noting that the topic attracts close attention of the president and has support from the prime minister.
The reform plan also urged companies to meet the client’s needs. “The government is there to fly, not to hold in the hangar,” the ministry said in a fact sheet.
The planned department will widen the use of long-term service contracts in which a company assumes overall responsibility for supporting the aircraft, Pauly said. The aim is to avoid the case of the Airbus Helicopters Tiger attack helicopter, which has more than 30 contracts, which SIMMAD, the military maintenance office, must oversee.
The new office, which takes over the role of SIMMAD, will be staffed by highly qualified personnel from the Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office, the ministry said. The DGA is expected to factor in service when drafting plans for arms programs.
A split of the mission will be made, with military personnel handling maintenance in overseas deployment, whereas in France, a company will act as prime contractor for service, managing the task to be split between the forces and civil contractors.
The armed forces will disengage from aircraft logistical support, outside of overseas deployment, the ministry said.
A “vertical approach and globalization” of contracts is planned to coordinate the forces and civil contractors. That will initially be applied to helicopter fleets and then all other aircraft contracts in the next 18 months, including the Rafale fighter jet.
A six-month study will consider the future role of SIAé, the government aircraft maintenance office, in view of fast changes in industry. The review aims to grant greater scope for SIAé in purchases, partnerships and staff, with the office continuing to have a large role in modern military programs.
The service chiefs and top officials, set with specific targets, will report directly to Parly, who will gauge their performance. Parly’s private office will appoint a project team, which will track the various aspects of the reform.
“The priority of our forces is to fight against terrorism and security of the French. Service of high quality is essential to these missions,” the ministry said.
Predictive maintenance should be pursued, drawing on digitalization, robots, 3-D printing, big data and data fusion, the ministry said.
In industry, large companies are involved, including Airbus, Dassault, Safran and Thales. Specialist firms include Sabena Technics and Air France Industries, and there are also small firms and medium- and intermediate-sized companies, the ministry said.
Aircraft availability has fallen to 44 percent from 55 percent in 2000, the ministry said. All helicopters of the forces, maritime patrol aircraft and tactical transport planes have the lowest readiness, with 1 in 4 available for flight.
The outlook is poor in view of the present organization, which suffers from an overlap and unclear official oversight, while relations between the forces and industry could be improved, the ministry said.
The 2017 annual defense budget allots €4 billion (U.S. $4.7 billion) to service, up a quarter over five years, the ministry said. That spending increase has not led to greater availability, and may have fueled an “inflationary effect.”
One flight hour of the Airbus Helicopters Caracal rose more than 81 percent to €34,000 in 2016 from €19,000 in 2012, while operational capability stayed the same, the ministry said.
Visiting Air Base 105 at Evreux entailed seeing the Transall airlifter, an elderly but well-performing plane, Pauly said. That tactical aircraft has only a 30 percent availability, while key in operations in the Sahel, sub-Saharan Africa.
The availability of aircraft in overseas operations was at 80 percent, which was “excellent,” the ministry said, but that forced the services to cut training flight time and suffer a 30 percent availability for domestic operations due to a need for service support.
Staff morale also slid. Some 22,000 personnel work on aircraft service, split between the forces, SIMMAD and SIAé.
The wide-ranging reform is based on a report from DGA official Christian Chabbert, who conducted more than 80 interviews. The report was launched in September.
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