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Mali Mission Spurs French Interest in Armed UAV

Feb. 17, 2013 - 12:38PM   |  
By PIERRE TRAN   |   Comments
France is deepening its interest in acquiring the Reaper UAV from the U.S., a move that would stir political sensitivities over purchasing a weapons-firing UAV, while Paris readies to cut its defense budget, government and industry sources said.
France is deepening its interest in acquiring the Reaper UAV from the U.S., a move that would stir political sensitivities over purchasing a weapons-firing UAV, while Paris readies to cut its defense budget, government and industry sources said. (U.S. Air Force)
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PARIS — France is deepening its interest in acquiring the Reaper UAV from the U.S., a move that would stir political sensitivities over purchasing a weapons-firing UAV, while Paris readies to cut its defense budget, government and industry sources said.

Meanwhile, EADS has submitted an offer to extend the contract for its Harfang medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV, the sources said.

The vast distances and intelligence needs in Mali have underlined the French military’s need for a UAV capable of relatively high speed and a long time in the combat zone, defense sources said.

Harfang could serve as a gap-filler, an industry executive said, since delivery of the first Reaper would likely take at least two years.

French procurement officials are preparing a letter of request for the General Atomics Reaper, two defense sources said. That letter is due to be sent “soon,” an industry executive said. A French defense official confirmed a letter is under preparation, although no date has been set for dispatch.

“This will launch the official procedure for access to financial information, timetable and options” for the Reaper, the official said. Talks with the U.S. Air Force helped French officials draw up the letter of request, the official said.

A U.S. State Department official said that while no deal was imminent, there have been discussions about the Reaper and that the French have “made their interest known.”

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian wants to see all the options before deciding, a second official said.

“We’re getting everything ready for when the minister hits the ‘go’ button,” a senior official said.

Le Drian asked for a study of options for an intermediate MALE UAV last year, reversing the previous administration’s pick of the Heron TP UAV from Dassault Aviation and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). He said at the time that the Heron did not meet requirements.

Acquiring the Reaper is politically sensitive because the version France wants is capable of carrying weapons.

Britain is the only European country that operates an armed Reaper model; Italy flies a surveillance version of the UAV.

French officials hope the fight in Mali against Islamist Salafist and Tuareg rebels will show U.S. legislators that Paris can be trusted as a military ally.

The other sensitivity of choosing Reaper: France would be buying U.S. equipment as Paris readies to cut the defense budget.

EADS has teamed with General Atomics to offer a modified Reaper to the French government.

Buying the Reaper raises two key economic questions: how much will it cost, and how many French jobs would be created modifying the aircraft to deliver a national sovereignty over the system.

U.S. legislators must approve the export of Reapers, which raises political questions.

“Congress is on the critical path,” the French official said.

On the domestic economic front, some 70 French jobs could be created in integrating French gear onto the UAV, including a satellite datalink, sensor payload, command and control and certifying the aircraft for French civil airspace, the industry executive said.

French gear would account for around 40 percent of the acquisition price of around 320 million euros ($429 million), the executive said.

That estimate sounded “optimistic,” the first defense official said.

The modifications would be shared by EADS Cassidian, Thales, Sagem and Zodiac, the executive said.

Cassidian could later integrate the Reaper into the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance program, based on the Global Hawk UAV, due to enter service in 2017. A later version of the Reaper could include a maritime radar and electronic warfare gear.

Harfang Extension

EADS, meanwhile, officially presented Feb. 12 its offer to extend the support contract for the Harfang UAV to October 2017, the executive said Feb. 13.

The offer, made with IAI, includes maintenance and treatment of obsolescence with an upgrade of electro-optical and radar sensors. The service contract expires in October.

No financial details were available. The final price would depend on the modules selected.

France acquired the Harfang, based on the IAI Heron, at a similar price to that paid by the Israeli government, a second industry executive said. The Harfang entered service in 2008 after a long delay due to EADS’ problems in fitting a French satellite communications link.

An extension of the Harfang is needed in any case. If France bought the Reaper, delivery is likely to take at least two years, the first official said.

The French Air Force has four Harfang units, two of which are flying over Mali supporting ground troops. One unit is held for spares, the fourth is kept for training.

General Atomics is showing a full-scale mock-up of its Predator XP export version at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference trade show opening Feb. 17 in Abu Dhabi. The company hopes to sell the UAV to the United Arab Emirates and is in talks with the Tawazun state holding company and other local firms to create a joint venture to provide service support for the Predator in the UAE, the company said.

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Zachary Fryer-Biggs in Washington contributed to this report.

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