Atlantic 2 patrol plane can designate targets for its own bombs
by DAVID AXE
The Marine Nationale — the French navy — has modified some of its twin-prop Atlantic 2 maritime patrol planes to designate targets for their own laser-guided bombs.
This new laser self-designation capability means that the 1980s-vintage ATL2s can conduct independent strike missions over long distances. They are, in other words, bombers … of a sort. And very few countries can boast of owning bombers.
Built by Dassault, the ATL2 is an upgraded version of the older Atlantic patrol plane from the 1960s. The French navy is the type’s sole user with 22 copies. Italy and Pakistan still fly first-generation Atlantics.
Powered by two Rolls-Royce turboprops, the 12-person ATL2 can fly as long as 18 hours while hauling more than three tons of munitions. Originally a submarine-hunter, in recent decades the ATL2 has evolved into an overland surveillance and strike plane, supporting French counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, primarily in Africa.
Able to fly high for hours at a time, peering down below with radar, electro-optical and infrared sensors, the ATLs are kind of like drones … but with people on-board to do the image-analysis work. France is slowly acquiring a dozen Reaper drones from the United States, but in the meantime the ATL2s are the country’s main battlefield surveillance aircraft.
Befitting their new role, in 2007 Paris began a major overhaul of 18 ATL2s, aiming to keep them flying and fighting until 2030. First, the planes got new flight decks and computer workstations. Then, in 2008, engineers tweaked the planes’ internal weapons bays to accommodate up to four 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided bombs.
After all, if you’re going to have an ATL2 overhead spotting targets, the plane might as well have some bombs on hand to blow up those targets, too. “It is a useful to have some multipurpose assets,” Laurent Collet-Billon, head of French procurement agency, told Aviation Week.
But early on, the ATL2s needed outside help to actually use their GBU-12s. An Atlantic 2 crew could locate a target, but lacked the laser equipment to designate the target, shining down a focused beam of light to show the bomb where to go. A Harfang drone or a soldier on the ground had to intervene, operating a laser designator on the ATL2 crew’s behalf.
In that way, ATL2s bombed militants in Mali during France’s intervention in that country in 2011. Paris rushed to fix the self-designation problem, issuing an urgent contract to begin fitting 15 ATL2s with MX-20 sensor turrets from American firm L-3. The MX-20 includes a daylight and IR camera and a laser designator.
And on June 18, 2015, over the Biscarosse range in southwest France, the first two ATL2s with MX-20s tested their self-contained bombing ability, designating targets for their own GBU-12s. Continuing the upgrades, France is also adding satellite communications to the ATL2s. The patrol planes-turned-bombers will also get new radars starting in 2016.
Now, just because an ATL2 can fly thousands of miles, locate targets and drop bombs does not mean it’s the equal of a U.S. Air Force B-52, a Russian Bear bomber or a Chinese H-6K. Purpose-built bombers fly higher, faster and farther while carrying many, many more munitions than the ATL2’s modest four GBU-12s.
But for long-endurance armed patrols over a place like Mali, the ATL2 is just the thing. And in a pinch, the patrollers could perform a strategic role, too — delivering a few bombs on critical targets a continent away.
It’s worth noting that, a few years ago, the U.K. Royal Air Force had wanted to add bombs to its own Nimrod MRA4 patrol planes then in development, potentially giving Great Britain the ability to replicate the legendary Black Buck raids of the 1982 Falklands War, when RAF Vulcan bombers flew thousands of miles to strike Argentine positions.
London scrapped the Nimrod MRA4 as a result of controversial military budget cuts in 2010. Eying the French navy with its own new long-range bombers, today British planners are surely jealous. An ATL2 is hardly a B-52. But for flying far and dropping bombs, it’s better than nothing.