More details have come to light regarding the planned lease of a Saab 340B turboprop Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft for the French Air Force.
The leasing is to cover a gap in airborne Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) provision. This March, the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) retired its two TransportAllianz C-160G Gabriel SIGINT platforms. The C-160Gs will be replaced by the air force’s new Dassault Falcon-8X Archange SIGINT plane. Three of these aircraft are expected to enter service from circa 2026. In early May, it was reported that the Archange planes had begun testing.
Thus, the ADLA has been left with a three-year airborne SIGINT gap between the Gabriel’s retirement and the Archangel’s arrival. The gap is occurring when the workload of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) airborne SIGINT assets has increased dramatically. As open sources like the flightradar24 aircraft tracking website have documented, NATO SIGINT flights regularly occur close to Russia and Ukraine. This allows NATO to collect signals intelligence useful to itself and its Ukrainian allies.
The French government had already planned for this eventuality. In July 2022, Major General Frederic Parisot, deputy chief of the ADLA, announced plans to lease a twin turboprop SIGINT aircraft. He added that the planned solution could focus on a Saab 340-based platform. These plans crystalised into the ADLA’s ‘Solar’ contract which covers the lease of SIGINT aircraft until 2028.
New information has come to light on which company maybe satisfying the Solar contract. The author contacted Saab last year to ask if the company was providing the solution. A Saab source told Armada that they were not aware of any project having been entered into with the ADLA to this end. Nonetheless, a source in the ADLA electronic warfare community has hinted that CAE Aviation is handling the contract. Headquartered in Luxembourg, the company is known to have at least one Saab 340B configured for surveillance. Invariably this prompts the question as to whether this aircraft, or another Saab 340B owned by the company, is satisfying the Solar contract?
From an operational point-of-view leasing a platform like a SIGINT-configured Saab 340B makes sense. The C-160G had a service ceiling of 27,000 feet (8,230 metres/m). This translates into a circa 200 nautical mile/nm (373 kilometre/km) detection range for ground-based radio and radar emitters. This is slightly less for the Saab 340B, which has a service ceiling of 25,000ft (7,620m), of circa 194nm (359km). Nonetheless, it is still comparable. Both aircraft’s capabilities will be eclipsed by those of the Falcon-8X which should be able to detect ground-based emitters at ranges of 277nm (513km) thanks to its 51,000ft (15,544m) ceiling. Moreover, the Falcon-8X offers significantly more range; 6,450nm (11,945km), compared to the C-160G’s 1,001nm (1,853km).
Closing the gap
The ADLA and French government should be commended for ensuring there is no gap in airborne SIGINT provision, a capability as vital to NATO’s interests as it is to France. The leasing also shows the role of the private sector in satisfying requirements in the interval between legacy asset retirement and new capabilities.
by Dr. Thomas Withington