Douglas DC-8 Sarigue NG
For many years France employed one DC-8 as a ELINT platform and it was operated by Escadron Electronique EE 51 ‘Aubrac’ from its base at Evreux near Paris. In 2000 the original DC-8-53 Serial No 45570, was replaced with a newer DC-8-72-F Serial No 46043 powered by CFM56 turbofans. The name Sarigue stands for Systeme Aeroporte de Recueil d’Informations de Guerre Electronique (Airborne Electronic Warfare Information Gathering System) and also is the French word for Opossum, a solitary animal rather like the aircraft itself, which was rarely seen in public. The updated aircraft was known as the SARIGUE-NG, with the NG standing for Nouvelle Generation or New Generation.
The aircraft was fitted with equipment developed by Thompson-CSF, similar to that installed in the Transall Gabriel. It is believed that the aircraft operated with a 24 man crew and as well as COMINT and SIGINT duties, it could even intercept mobile phone calls. Operated by the French Air Force on behalf of the armed forces and security services, it was seen in the Baltic, Mediterranean and French Africa, as well as being used in support of coalition operations during the Gulf War and NATO peace keeping operations in Kosovo. The Sarigue was unusual in having a large sideways looking airborne radar (SLAR) in a fairing under the fuselage, as well as large rectangular antenna arrays at each wingtip.
On Sunday 19 Sep 04 a report suddenly appeared in The Mail on Sunday that the DC-8 Sarigue NG had been grounded. The report went on to state that, as a result of an extensive upgrade by Thales the cost of which ballooned from £24 to £32 million, the plane ended up being equipped with ten tons of high-tech equipment and then it was suddenly discovered that the plane was so overloaded that it couldn’t safely fly!! The French defence ministry apparently decided to end the programme as the Sarigue was no longer good value for money. The report was officially confirmed on 29 Sep 04 by Jane’s Defence Weekly who reported that the French Defence Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, had confirmed that the aircraft would be retired because of ‘high operating costs’. Other reports have indicated that, as well as being overweight, the equipment installed by Thales simply didn’t work correctly and was rejected by the French MOD who wanted the company to remove the equipment and refund the cost of the upgrade – which I suppose is another way of describing the operating costs as ‘high’.
I have always wondered why the French persisted with using such an old airframe as the DC-8 for this vital SIGINT role - even though the Sarigue NG was equipped with modern CFM-56 engines, other spares cannot have been particularly easy to acquire. When this extensive upgrade was planned, I assume converting an Airbus 310, 320 or 330 for this role was seriously considered, costed and then rejected. Any of those modern airframes would have provided the necessary capacity and load carrying capability and would even have allowed the French to market a modern ‘off-the-shelf’ ELINT aircraft, with plenty of spares readily avaialble, to other countries. However, like the USA, I assume the French did not want other countries to target France with French ELINT equipment and consequently rejected the idea!