The infographic at the end of the article displays all the flying squadrons of the French Air Force (Armée de l’Air), Naval Aviation (Aéronautique Navale) and Army Light Aviation (Aviation légère de l’Armée de Terre) as of May 2017.
The French Air Force aircraft inventory typifies France’s historically strong defense industry. Indigenous designs from Dassault or Sud-Aviation (now Airbus), like the Mirage 2000, the Rafale and the SA330 Puma are widespread in the inventory. European designs also make up a large part of the force, underlining a strong European integration with collaborative projects like the A400M, the NH90, the EC665 Tigre and C-160 Transall.
Some critical support roles, however, were left to foreign suppliers. The Airborne Command and Control and Aerial Refuelling Squadrons are equipped with US-made E-3F and KC-135. Additionally, MQ-9 drones were ordered to address shortcomings in the area of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance plaguing France’s intervention in Mali (see also David Axe, “Lessons of the Mali War“, offiziere.ch, 15.02.2013). Two MQ-9 Reaper stations (3 drones and one command station each) were received as of 2017 and two more will be delivered by 2019 (total of 12 drones and four command stations; Beth Stevenson, “France orders third Reaper system“, Flight Global, 17.12.2015).
Two C-130J and two KC-130J were also ordered in 2016 (Beth Stevenson, “French government confirms C-130J buy“, Flight Global, 04.02.2016). Those aircraft were purchased to close a capability gap resulting from delays in the A400M program. As of May 2017, France received 11 A400M, of which only 6 were equipped to the latest standard able to perform tactical missions (Frédéric Bergé, “Enfin une bonne nouvelle pour l’A400M d’Airbus“, BFM Business, 15.06.2016). Furthermore, the A400M will not completely remove the dependency on Soviet-era cargo aircraft, as it have a relatively small payload capacity (about 30 tons at 4,000 km, the distance from France to Mali, compared to close to 120 tons for the AN-124-100 for the same range; see also here: Björn Müller, “Battle for the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution“, offiziere.ch, 30.04.2016).
France currently has a serious airlift deficiency and must rely heavily on allied platforms and charters (British and American C-17 supported the initial deployment to Mali in 2013 and chartered Ukrainian and Russian aircraft are vital elements of the supply chain).
The Navy Aviation is composed of a Carrier Air Wing for the Charles de Gaulle, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters for
Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System duties aboard surface ships, ASW patrol aircraft and search and rescue aircraft, as well as the usual training and liaison aircraft. The Carrier Air Wing recently parted with its Super Etendard Modernisé (SEM) aircraft and turned to an all-Rafale fleet based on the Rafale Marine.
Some of the few foreign aircraft in the French Navy are the three E-2C Hawkeyes carrying Airborne Early Warning duties aboard the Charles de Gaulle. The Navy Aviation still retains an ASW patrol capability with two squadrons of aging Bréguet Atlantique 2, despite their age they proved to be valuable ISR and strike platforms thanks to several upgrades in optronics. However with no replacement planned so far, France might lose this capability in the 2020s. The aging helicopter fleet of Lynx, Alouette and Dauphin is being replaced by the European NH90.
In the Army Light Aviation, French and European aircraft are prevalent, one of the sole exception being a handful Pilatus PC-6. Flight School, based on EC120 Colibiri, is externalized to Hélidax through a Public-Private Partnership — the first Partnership of this kind launched by the French Ministry of Defense (now Ministry of the Armed Services). The French Army Light Aviation Special Forces Helicopters Regiment was formed in 2009 to support special forces operations. It is one of the handful such units worldwide, and the only one with a couple of purely combat helicopters (the EC665 Tigre).