Low and Slow

New H-160M helicopters equipping the French Air Force and French Navy could receive Thales Airmaster-C radars to assist their detection of air and sea targets.

New French Air Force helicopters supporting the air interception of low and slow air targets will have their mission assisted by new radar technology.

The Armée de l’Air (ADLA/French Air Force) flies several Eurocopter/Airbus Helicopter AS-555AN Fennece light utility helicopters for the interception of uncooperative low and slow air targets.

The ADLA’s MASA mission (Mesure Active de Sûreté Aérienne/Active Aviation Security Measures) uses AS-555ANs to intercept targets like light aircraft or paragliders which might inadvertently or deliberately threaten strategic installations, cities or major events.

The French government activated the mission in the wake of the 11th September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. Like other governments around the world, there was a palpable fear that light aircraft could be commandeered and used for suicide attacks. Combat aircraft like the ADLA’s Dassault Rafale and Mirage-2000 series jets were deemed unsuitable for this task; better employed for engaging conventional air threats.

The ADLA hit upon the idea of using the AS-555AN. During a typical mission, a helicopter will carry two air force commandos. They carry large white panels to communicate with the offending aircraft in the event it has suffered a radio failure or is not communicating with air traffic controllers. The helicopter can escort the aircraft away from a potential target. In the worst-case scenario, commandos can use their Heckler and Koch HK-417 7.62mm marksman rifle to shoot down the aircraft or neutralise the pilot.


These helicopters currently lack any air-to-air radar. Instead, they are dependent on controllers vectoring them towards their target. Moreover AS-555ANs in ADLA service will be replaced in the coming five years with new Airbus H-160M Guepard medium-lift utility helicopters.

Some of these aircraft will be earmarked to support the MASA mission. The ADLA should receive up to 40 of the new helicopters by 2028. The Marine Nationale (French Navy) should receive (0 over the same period alongside the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (ALAT/French Army Light Aviation) which will get 40.


The ALAT H-160Ms will not be outfitted with Thales’ AirMaster-C X-band (8.5 gigahertz/GHz to 10.68GHz) compact active electronically scanned array airborne surveillance radar, but this radar will adorn the ADLA and Marine Nationale aircraft.

The only difference between the two radar variants is that the AirMaster-Cs equipping the ADLA will have a single panel radar with a 120-degree Field-of-View (FOV) integrating the back end. The navy helicopter will have the same master panel connected to two slave panels providing a 360-degrees FOV.

François Arpagaus, product line director at Thales’ defence mission systems business says that the naval variant of the AirMaster-C has a maximum instrumented range of circa 160 nautical miles (296 kilometres), with the air variant having a range of 50nm (93km).

The design can be outfitted with an integral Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) interrogator/transponder which receives aircraft transponder transmissions across frequencies of 960 megahertz/MHz to 1.164GHz or transmissions from an aircraft’s ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) system which uses frequencies of 978MHz to 1.090GHz. Both the IFF and ADS-B transmissions will provide the Airmaster-C with details of an aircraft’s identity and flight.

Mr. Arpagaus continues that the Airmaster-C radars could likewise receive an Automatic Identification System (AIS) interrogator/transponder to enrich the radar maritime tactical picture. AIS is mandated by the International Maritime Organisation for all vessels displacing over 300 gross tonnes. AIS transmissions, use frequencies of 161.975MHz to 162.025MHz providing details of a vessel’s identity and voyage.


Design work on the radar has been completed. Mr. Arpagaus says that a prototype could undergo laboratory integration in 2022. Flight trials could begin one year later with the radar’s full qualification expected in 2024.

by Dr. Thomas Withington