On 31st July the Armée de l’Air (ADLA/French Air Force) took delivery of the first of eight Beechcraft King Air-350 Vader turboprops configured for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).
Deliveries of the aircraft are expected to conclude in 2030 according to reports. The aircraft are being procured under the auspices of France’s DGA (Direction générale de l’Armement/General Armaments Directorate) defence procurement agency’s Avion Léger de Surveillance et de Reconnaissance (ALSR/Light Surveillance and Reconnaissance Aircraft) initiative. The aircraft can collect Imagery and Signals Intelligence (IMINT/SIGINT). It was announced in 2016 that the DGA had contracted Thales to provide the ALSR mission systems, Beechcraft to supply the aircraft and Sabena Technics to perform the systems integration.
The planes have two tasks: Firstly, to collect intelligence on behalf of the Direction du Renseignement Militaire (DRM/French Military Intelligence) and the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE/Foreign Intelligence Service). Secondly, the aircraft will initially serve as a stop-gap supporting the ADLA’s ageing fleet of two C-160G Gabriel SIGINT collection aircraft, prior to the service entry of the ADLA’s three new Dassault Falcon-7X Epicure SIGINT planes. These will replace the C-160Gs from 2023.
Although not revealed by the French government the Vaders could be tasked with collecting operational/tactical level SIGINT, principally Communications Intelligence (COMINT), while the C-160Gs collect operational/strategic level SIGINT. The new planes have two attributes that lend themselves well to this task: They can operate from austere locations thanks to their small logistical footprint, and they can gather SIGINT over an area of 517,847 square kilometres (199,942 square miles). This makes them ideal for theatre-level reconnaissance gathering.
It is not surprising that the DRM and DGSE will be customers for the intelligence collected by the Vaders. Ongoing counter-insurgency efforts such as Operation Barkhane involving a large French deployment is being waged in the Sahel against a hodgepodge of Islamist insurgents. Intelligence gathered by these aircraft could be of interest to the DGSE helping it to prevent attacks by Islamist cadres in France and elsewhere. The aircraft are expected to continue providing operational/theatre level intelligence once the Falcon-7X Epicure jets enter service.
Thales has developed the SIGINT capabilities for the ALSR. Although there are no details in the public domain, the aircraft’s signals intelligence gathering attributes are believed to be focused on Communications Intelligence (COMINT). The COMINT aspect is probably confined to detecting, identifying, locating and analysing a wide array of Very/Ultra High Frequency (V/UHF: 30 megahertz to three gigahertz) emissions from military and civilian telecommunications in support of the ground commander and scheme of manoeuvre. The aircraft may include the wherewithal to analyse the COMINT onboard or transmit it to offboard analysts via standard datalinks. Thales’ Airborne COMINT Solution (ACS) may form the basis for the Vader’s COMINT payload.
The arrival of these aircraft in ADLA service forms part of a larger overhaul of France’s SIGINT posture. Beyond the Falcon-7X Epicure the DGA is forging ahead with the (Capacité de Renseignement Electromagnétique Spatial/Space Electromagnetic Intelligence Capability) SIGINT satellite constellation, the first of which is expected to be launched in 2021. Meanwhile, the Armée de Terre (French Army) could replace the electronic warfare variants of its Véhicule de l’Avant Blindé (Armoured Vanguard Vehicles) over the coming decade.