PARIS --- After also considering the Israeli Heron TP unmanned aircraft, France has decided to instead order two MQ-9 Reapers that will be delivered by year-end, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said May 31.
In a column published in the Paris daily Les Echos, Le Drian said he had decided the acquisition because “we cannot wait any longer” given the immediate situation in the Sahel region. “The US route is the most promising in the very short-term. How could we not follow up on the first opportunity?” he asked.
Le Drian also laid out in broad terms France’s unmanned aircraft strategy, intended to “break the operational and industrial impasse, and finally provide France with drones, which are the future centerpieces of intelligence and combat operations.”
France currently operates two Harfang medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) systems “which were already described as an ‘interim’ solution when they were ordered in 2003, and there has been no progress in a decade,” Le Drian noted, deploring that “we are reduced to hoping that the two systems that are still operational today will not break down, and thus have to rely on the solidarity of our allies for a capability that is a major element of our sovereignty.”
Le Drian also deplored that France’s “entire defense community, the ministry as well as industry,” had missed the bus for this type of equipment, adding that “what is true for France is also true for Europe.”
Noting that short-term urgency should not influence the future, Le Drian said he had proposed that France regroup “with our European partners, in the field of MALE drones by pooling our experience and our capabilities, and involve our industries in the development of such systems for our own requirements. This ambition is already being worked on,” he said.
In the longer term, Le Drian noted that French and European industry is at the leading edge of combat drones, which will support or replace manned fighters after 2030, as was shown by the first flight of the Neuron UCAV demonstrator at the beginning of the year. “We will not miss this opportunity….and we will provide all the necessary means,” he said before concluding that “a year ago, unmanned vehicles were an open question for our forces. Today, we have a first and robust answer, and I intend to stick to it.”
Click here for the full article (in French) on the Les Echos website.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Le Drian’s Op-Ed glosses over the fact that two industry groups (Dassault and EADS) had submitted competing offers in 2007 and again in 2009 to supply new MALE unmanned vehicles, both derived from the Israeli-designed Heron TP, while EADS had also offered to upgrade France’s current Harfangs.
No decision had been taken on any of these offers, and in the interim the French air force deployed a wide-ranging lobbying effort against them, preferring to push for the procurement of armed MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reapers unmanned aircraft from the United States.
Sources say that the two Reapers will be unarmed, and are probably older models taken from the US Air Force inventory, although this has not been officially confirmed.)