A long awaited AVSIMAR
The AVSIMAR program origins date back to over a decade. In the middle of the 2000s, the French Navy is preparing the decommissioning of its last Nord 262, a twin-turboprop aircraft operational since the 1960s. At that time, a dozen Nord 262 were used for various missions, including SURMAR, the French acronym for maritime surveillance. Their retirement was planned for the end of the decade, while the aging fleet of five Falcon 200 Guardian was due to end their operational service in 2015. At that time, the French Navy wanted to have 18 AVSIMAR aircraft replacing the entire fleets of Nord 262 and Falcon 200 and Falcon 50.
But sadly for the French Navy, the military planning law (LPM) for 2008-2014 made no mention (or budget allocation) for the AVSIMAR program, meaning that no new procurement could be done before 2015. While the last Nord 262 was decommissioned in 2009, the Navy had to face a capability gap for the surveillance of French coasts and French oversea territories.
And in 2014, once again, AVSIMAR didn’t make it through the new edition of the LPM covering the 2014-2019 timeframe. As a stop-gap measure, the service life of the five Falcon 200 Guardian was extended. Four three-engined Falcon 50 of the French Air Force were also transferred to the French Navy (following some modifications), which doubled the operational fleet of Falcon 50M.
Finally, after a political confirmation in 2017 and then in 2018, the French Ministry of Armed Forces announced the notification of the contract for the new AVSIMAR in November 2020 after yet another delay. While thirteen aircraft were expected to replace the five Guardian and the eight Falcon 50M, it seems that only twelve AVSIMAR will be ordered. According to the LPM 2019-2025, the initial order is for seven aircraft to be delivered starting from 2025, a year later than what was planned in 2018.
In 2025, the second contract for the last five AVSIMAR will be signed under the next LPM. Of course, this split of the AVSIMAR program could be seen as a risk for the French Navy, as nothing guarantees the second order. In the same time, it could be an opportunity to reassess the overall AVSIMAR program and complete the first seven Falcon LXS “Albatros” with a different type of aircraft, or even an unmanned system.
From Falcon 2000 MRA to Falcon 2000 MSA
In the middle of the 2000s, anticipating the replacement of the old Falcon 50 and Flacon 200, Dassault Aviation worked on a new maritime reconnaissance aircraft, the Falcon 2000MRA. As a reconnaissance aircraft, the Falcon 2000MRA was able to perform both maritime patrol and maritime surveillance tasks. In addition to the two pilots, four operators can control the FLIR and the search radar. For Maritime Patrol (MPA) missions, this design is able to carry weapons under the wings, typically a pair of Exocet antiship missiles.
Mixing the MPA and MSA missions, the Falcon 2000 MRA is still being proposed by Dassault Aviation, alongside a heavier and better armed Falcon 900 MPA. The Falcon 2000 MRA never found a customer in its first iteration however. Nevertheless, it provides the basis for an improved and more specialized version of the plane: the Falcon 2000 MSA, for Maritime Surveillance Aircraft.
In 2015, it was announced that the Japan Coast Guard –which already operates two Falcon 900 MSA– selected the Falcon 2000 as its new surveillance patrol aircraft. This new MSA variant is slightly different from the baseline MRA. Optimized for coast guard duties, it doesn’t feature the weapon stations under the wing. It is equipped with a belly mounted long-range multimode radar (believed to be Thales’ Searchmaster) offering a true 360° coverage. A retractable EO/IR sensor turret and a communication suite including SATCOM are also fitted in the jet. The mission system is provided by L3 Technologies.
Note that the Falcon 2000 MSA is based on the new variant of the aircraft, the Falcon 2000LXS. The new LXS offers 4,000 nm (7,410 km) range, compared to 3,240 nm (6000 km) for the legacy Falcon 2000. In the MSA variant, the LXS is able to patrol 7 hours, 200 nm from the coast. That’s more than twice the operational range of the Falcon 200 Guardian, and it’s even better than the three-engined Falcon 50M.
Falcon 2000 “Albatros” for the French Navy
For the moment, the Japan Coast Guard bought half a dozen Falcon 2000MSA, with possible follow on orders. This MSA version will be the basis of the new Albatros of the French Navy. In order to keep the cost down, the Albatros will keep the same airframe, (the LXS) and the same radar fairing, hiding the same Thales Searchmaster radar. SATCOM will be kept, and a L22 data-link will be added.
Of course, the mission system won’t be provided by L3 Technologies in the United States but by French shipbuilder Naval Group. The EO/IR turret will be the Euroflir 410 by Safran, and the plane will benefit from latest generation INS and anti-jamming GPS, allowing it to operate in contested areas –notably over the French territories of the Pacific region. As on the Falcon 50M and Guardian before, the Albatros will be able to launch rescue equipment from the cabin of the aircraft.
Being based on the Falcon 2000LXS, the Albatros will benefits from very good low speed low altitude handling for rescue operations, while still being able to loiter a long time at high altitude for search tasks. The performance and reliability of its PW308C engines also enable quick “boom and zoom”, when the aircraft alternates low altitude visual inspection phases and high altitude radar/optical wide scan;
Falcon 2000 “Made in India”
According to Dassault Aviation, the first three Albatros will be built in Mérignac, France. The following airframes will be assembled in India, thanks to the offsets of the Rafale fighter deal of 2016. Dassault Aviation is indeed planning to transfer the Falcon 2000 assembly line from Mérignac to Nagpur, in the new factory of Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL).
At some point after 2026, all the civilian and military Falcon 2000 will come from Nagpur. Of course, most of the parts of the aircraft will still come from France, while the engines will be provided by Pratt & Whitney. Note that all the airframes produced in Nagpur will fly to Mérignac in order to be converted to military standard.
For the moment, only seven Albatros are on order, with an option for five more. In total, nine of them could be built in India, not counting the export orders coming after 2025. It is possible that the Japan Coast Guard will order a few additonal Falcon 2000MSA in the coming years. India, of course, is due to replace its Do-228 MSA fleet, and the Falcon coming from DRAL will widely benefits from the “Make in India” policy.
New customers may also come from the Asia-Pacific area, where the original Falcon 2000MRA concept may fit some requirements. Combining the excellent long-range surveillance capacities of the MSA with true anti-ship capability can be a game changer for air forces and navies that aren’t able to operate larger maritime patrol aircraft.
Not to mention that the Falcon 2000 is also available as an ISR and SIGINT platform, already operational in South Korea.
Large UAVs for AVSIMAR ?
In the short term, the risk is to see the French Navy reducing its order. Opting for an Albatros widely inspired by the Japanese MSA allows the Marine Nationale to buy a proven airframe with proven systems (the Searchmaster radar and Euroflir 410 being integrate in other French military aircraft) without paying heavy development costs.
However, by keeping five airframes as an option, the French Navy will have the possibility to change its plan for the future of the AVSIMAR program. In 2025, the French Navy will have a clearer view on some major programs that can impact AVSIMAR.
By then, the architecture of the French-German MAWS will likely be defined… or the program simply cancelled. If the MAWS program is still on track, it is very possible that it includes some UAVs working alongside future MPA aircraft. And regardless the MAWS evolution, the French Navy is likely to observe in the next five years the use of the MQ-9 Reaper in the French Air Force and the new Patroller UAV in the French Army.
If it decides so, the French Navy will then have the ability to replace the last batch of the Albatros by some MALE drones. Naval News understands that both the SeaGuardian (General Atomics) and the Patroller (Safran) are already being considered by the French Navy. The Eurodrone (EuroMALE RPAS) will likely be another candidate, when it becomes operational. In theory, the French Navy’s procurement of MALE UAVs is due to be an independent program, not colliding with the AVSIMAR.
But if it appears that UAVs will play a major role in the MAWS architecture, they could be integrated in the AVSIMAR, replacing part or all of the five remaining Albatros. Whatever happens, the Albatros fleet is very likely to operate alongside new maritime UAVs after 2030, including in overseas territories.
Improved Albatros after 2025 ?
On the other hand, the following five years can also show the need for more versatile manned airframe. In 2025, the French Air Force is due to receive its first Falcon 8X ARCHANGE ELINT/SIGINT aircraft. For the moment, only three ARCHANGE were ordered. But tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea or even the Pacific area are likely to show that this small fleet of ARCHANGE won’t be enough to cover all possible threats.
Having manned platforms able to perform maritime surveillance, ISR and some ELINT tasks in the same mission could then appear like a good complementary mean to the ARCHANGE fleet. The last five Albatros could then be modified to incorporate the latest technologies, including the possibility to remote control tactical and MALE UAVs for example. And if needed, it is still possible to replace the five remaining Falcon 2000 Albatros by a heavier design, possibly a Falcon 8X combining the Albatros mission system with some features of the ARCHANGE.
Such an Improved Albatros could enable the French Navy to keep a low-end and a high-end SURMAR/MSA architecture. The Falcon 2000 Albatros will then replace the short-legged Falcon 200 Guardian, while a hypothetical Falcon 8X will replace the three-engined Falcon 50M.
Notwithstanding the improved capability of an Albatros derivative based on the Falcon 8X, replacing a three-engined Falcon 50M by a three-engined Falcon 8X (or Falcon 7X, or Falcon 900) could be an attractive solution from an operational point of view. In case of a bird strike, for example, the Falcon 50M is able to continue its mission on two engines. If an engine failure occurred during a remote deployment in the Pacific or Indian Ocean area, for instance, a three-engined Falcon is able to fly back to its home base without outside assistance, using only two engines during take off.
For the moment, such an hypothesis sounds very unlikely. Nevertheless, the idea might come up if the French-German cooperation around the MAWS collapses –due to the recent need to replace the Marineflieger’s P-3C Orion for instance. In such a case, France will have to replace its Atlantique 2 MPA on its own, probably with a far lighter Falcon platform. The overall architecture of French patrol aircraft –including the clear distinction between MPA and MSA– could then be disturbed. Replacing the last five Albatros by an improved platform could then allow the testing of new technological solutions to implement in the future Atlantique 2 successor.
Being based on a new but already operational design, the Falcon 2000 Albatros will be a relatively low-cost low-risk solution to renew the French Navy’s MSA fleet.
After 2025, the transfer of the assembly line in India is likely to pave the way to new export customers in Asia, for instance.
But in the meantime, the French Navy will have five years to decide how to complete its AVSIMAR program after 2025, almost 20 years after the subject was first raised.
The simplest (and more likely) solution will be to procure the five remaining Albatros. In case of increased operational needs, there is even the possibility to acquire the 13th airframe that was planned last year, or to replace the five last Falcon 2000 by heavier airframe like the Falcon 8X or Falcon 900.
But the French Navy is likely to look at other solutions. Today, satellites are already used to perform tasks that were entrusted by the Falcon Guardian when they enter operational service. Tomorrow, MALE UAVs will probably be able to outperformed maritime surveillance aircraft in some of their missions.
In the end, the French Navy will have to operate both manned and unmanned surveillance systems. While tensions increased all around French coasts, including overseas, the real question will be: how many UAVs, for how many MSA? At the beginning of the AVSIMAR program, 15 years ago, the French Navy wanted 18 aircraft. Keeping the 12 Albatros already planned and giving them some Patroller or SeaGuardian to team with could be a good –and more versatile–alternative.