Ground force: Half of France's military planes 'unfit to fly'
French warplanes and helicopters may be battling jihadists in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, but the French Air Force on the whole is in a disastrous state, with 56 per cent of all its aircraft unfit to fly at any given moment, according to a senior minister. “If I compare the current situation … of our planes with a car, it is as if I wanted to have a car every morning that works, I would have to own four cars,” Florence Parly, the armed forces minister, said during a visit to an air base in Evreux in Normandy. She made the remark in a scathing speech about the state of the French fleet, where aircraft availability has gone from bad to worse despite a 25 per cent boost to the maintenance budget over the past five years that brought the total to €4 billion (£3.5 billion) in 2017. Ms Parly went to Evreux last week to announce wide-ranging plans to cut soaring costs and free up more aircraft by streamlining the current maintenance programme, which is so complex that it can take 30 different contracts to get a helicopter repaired. Britain’s Royal Air Force, whose aircraft have been in constant use for many years in Afghanistan and Iraq, was criticised earlier this year when it was revealed that on average one in three of its multi-role Typhoon fighters and Tornado combat jets was unfit to fly. F22 and F16 Thunderbirds of US Air Force, fly over Paris during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris Credit: AFP Overall figures for the air readiness of the RAF fleet are not publicly available, but the figures for its fighter jets suggest that it is in far better shape than its French counterpart. Eighty per cent of the French fleet is operational in the battle zones of west Africa, Iraq and the Middle East, according to official figures, but in bases in France the figure plummets to 30 per cent. The overall figure for aircraft ready to fly is now 44 per cent, down from 55 per cent in 2000. On average, just one Caracal - a long-range tactical transport helicopter - in four is ready for action, while just one or two A400M turboprop transport planes out of a total of twelve are ready to take to the air. The Rafale, which is seen as one of the best multi-purpose fighter jets in the world, scores a respectable 49 per cent availability. But the figures for a range of other aircraft are disastrous: 22 per cent for the C-130 transport plane, 25 per cent for the Tiger attack and reconnaissance helicopter, and 26 per cent for the Lynx helicopter. “The consequences of this are that (flight) teams train less … and the cost of an hour of flight time has gone up,” Ms Parly said. An hour of flight time for a Caracal, for example, rose from €19,000 in 2012 to €34,000 in 2016. “This situation is no longer tenable, and I have therefore made it a personal priority,” said the minister. Six F16 of the US Air Force fly over Paris during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue Credit: AFP She announced that a new aeronautic maintenance department would be set up next March but that there would be no increase in the maintenance budget as it was deemed sufficient if the process was properly reorganised. The planned department, whose boss will report to the joint chief of staff, would make the company that makes the aircraft responsible for their maintenance “from start to finish,” Ms Parly said. The aim is to avoid the case of the Tiger helicopter, whose maintenance is currently split between so many different firms or military offices that it requires more than 30 separate contracts. Pierre Tran, a specialist on French military issues, said that in theory the minister’s plans were sound but that in practice there was a high risk. “They (defence contractors) will likely be thinking that Christmas came early this year,” he said, noting that the huge sums involved meant that there was a high risk of taxpayers’ money being wasted. The key to success for the government is to exert extreme caution when negotiating the new maintenance contracts with the firms involved, which include Airbus, Dassault, Thales and Air France Industries, said Mr Tran. In a message clearly directed at aircraft makers, the Armed Forces Minister said she wanted results by 2020. “We buy to fly, not to stock planes in hangars or parking spots,” said Ms Parly.