On February 28 the French Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, announced a new strategic electronic intelligence aircraft program to replace the two aging Transall C-160G Gabriel aircraft that currently perform the mission for the Armée de l’Air. Known as Epicure, the new aircraft will employ a Dassault Falcon business jet as its platform.
For several years, Dassault and its primary electronics partner, Thales, have discussed a new signals intelligence (Sigint) platform based on the Falcon series, noting that electronics have shrunk in size, weight, and power requirements to the point that systems with the capabilities of the Gabriel can be tailored to smaller and more efficient business jets. Greater automation and datalinking capability have also allowed crew sizes to be much reduced.
Along with the ministerial announcement, a contract was awarded to lead integrator Dassault to answer the French CUGE (Capacité Universelle de Guerre Electronique—universal electronic warfare capability) requirement. CUGE is an important element of the preparations for France’s Loi de Programmation Militaire (LPM, military program law) for 2019-25. Decision-making autonomy and increased intelligence resources are among the key defense priorities outlined by President Macron’s government.
Dassault has gained some traction with its special-mission Falcon aircraft, and currently offers the Falcon 2000 maritime reconnaissance and Falcon 900 maritime patrol aircraft. The 2000 has been bought by the Japan Coast Guard, while South Korea operates two Falcon 2000s on Sigint duties.
“I am very proud and happy with the decision of the Ministry of the Armed Forces. The Falcon Epicure will serve the French forces in the same way as the Falcons 10, 200, 50, 2000, 900, and 7X are already doing,” said Eric Trappier, chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation. “The military Falcons provide the perfect illustration of the dual competencies of Dassault Aviation: our civil aircraft benefit from the cutting-edge technologies developed for our combat aircraft, which in return benefit from the industrial processes deployed for the highly competitive production of the Falcon aircraft.”
While Epicure is to be based on a Falcon, it is not yet known which model will be the platform. An artist’s impression depicts a three-engine 7X/8X, but the new twin-engine Falcon 6X may also be a contender. A major feature of the CUGE/Epicure is a new sensor system being developed by Thales that can simultaneously intercept both radio and radar emissions, furthering the drive to reduce onboard systems footprint.
Originally, two aircraft were required to fulfill the CUGE requirement, but a third has now been added. They will enter service from 2025 to replace the two C-160G Gabriels, which currently serve with Escadron Electronique 54 Dunkerque at Evreux-Fauville.
Delivered to the squadron in January 1989, the Transalls have seen widespread use on missions around the former Soviet Union, as well as participation in numerous national and multinational “out of area” operations. The aircraft have a flight crew of three and mission crew of around 13, including communications and electronic intelligence specialists. A notable feature is the retractable “trashcan” fairing that houses receivers and is extended below the fuselage when in use. The Transalls replaced modified Nord Noratlas Gabriel aircraft, and until the late 1990s augmented a Sigint-configured Douglas DC-8 airliner known as the Sarigue.