Jolly Green Giants make way for new Black Hawks
The Tunisian Air Force's HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicoptersare set to be replaced by 12 Sikorsky S70 Black Hawks – but it remains unclear whether these will be donated or sold to Tunisia by the USA.
The DSCA notification for the sale of the 12 Black Hawks to the Government of Tunisia identified these as UH-60M helicopters in standard US Army configuration.
Though it was the Tunisian revolution that began the Arab Spring, Tunisia itself rapidly returned to peace and stability, though the new government’s determination to maintain the country’s secular traditions led to opposition from hardline Islamists, and to a terrorist campaign by the local al Qaeda offshoot Ansar al-Sharia which included assassinations and an attack against the US Embassy in Tunis.
With its stability currently under threat from Ansar al-Sharia, and by the occasional overspill of insurgents fighting in neighbouring and nearby countries, including Libya and even Mali, the Tunisian armed forces are becoming increasingly engaged in border security, counter-insurgency and counter terrorism operations.
In April 2014, Tunisia deployed thousands of troops to the mountainous Chaambi region on the border with Algeria, where fighters fleeing the French military intervention in Mali had taken refuge, and where more than a dozen Tunisian soldiers had been killed in attacks against military checkpoints in the area.
Recent operations have highlighted the need for greater air mobility and more ISTAR capabilities, in particular.
Tunisia’s existing helicopter force consists of two squadrons (No.s 31 and 32) equipped with about 18 Bell 205s, Agusta-Bell AB205s, Bell UH-1Hs and about three Agusta-Bell AB412s. These are based at Pointe Karoube (Bizerte-La Karouba), a dedicated heliport connected to Bizerte/Sidi Ahmed.
No.36 Squadron operates about ten ex-USAF Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopters. These are used in the SAR and assault roles, and some are equipped with an AN/AAQ-22 Safire FLIR. The unit is also based at Bizerte-La Karouba. There are helicopter detachments at other bases, including Monastir and Sfax/Thyna.
Even before the present crisis, Tunisia made efforts to replace its ageing helicopters, especially the HH-3Es, which are more difficult to support as the worldwide fleet is small. Tunisia requested the supply of twelve refurbished SH-60F Seahawks in 2010, to replace the HH-3Es, but the deal fell through.
During a visit to Washington DC in August 2014, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki admitted that: "We didn't expect that Tunisia would become a country where we would have these terrorist attacks like in Syria. We were a little bit naive." Behind the scenes, the President urged the US to provide support for Tunisia’s armed forces, and specifically requested the supply of 12 Black Hawk helicopters.
"We have asked the United States to give us about 12 Black Hawks," Marzouki said during a speech at the Atlantic Council, following the 23 July US DSCA notification to Congress of a possible $700 million Foreign Military Sale to Tunisia of UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters and associated equipment.
Tunisian units have gained an enviable reputation during United Nations peacekeeping missions. The Canadian commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) force during the Rwandan Genocide, General Roméo Dallaire, gave high praise to the Tunisian Army company under his command, referring to it as his "ace in the hole".
The United States has understandably identified the Tunisian military as a valuable ally in the fight against Islamist militants, and has progressively stepped up aid to the nation.
Jacob Walles the US Ambassador in Tunis stressed his country's willingness "to expand the longstanding cooperation with the Tunisian military," and said that at least $60 million more would be allocated for the upcoming year (adding to the $100 million provided to the Tunisian military since January 2011), to help pay for equipment to detect improvised explosive devices, new Navy patrol boats and counter-terrorism and night warfare training. The Ambassador added that the US would: “soon make available to the Tunisian Air Force 12 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to aid in the fight against terrorism," though he did not clarify whether it would be an ordinary transaction between two countries or a donation, saying only that discussions with the National Defence Ministry were ongoing.
The DSCA notification for the sale of the 12 Black Hawks to the Government of Tunisia identified these as UH-60M helicopters in standard US Army configuration. The UH-60M is an improved version of the UH-60L with improved design wide-chord rotor blades, 2,000-shp T700-GE-701D engines, an improved durability gearbox, an Integrated Vehicle Management Systems (IVHMS) computer, and a new glass cockpit. The helicopters are to be supplied with six spare engines, GAU-19 .50 cal and M134 7.62-mm machine guns, Precision Guided Rocket Systems, AGM-114R Hellfire anti-tank guided missiles, and Wescam MX-15Di or Brite Star II Electro-Optical/Infrared/Laser Designator turrets.
PICTURED: One of the Tunisian Air Force’s HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopters, which are expected to be replaced by the newly ordered UH-60M Black Hawks.