PARIS — U.S. training of French UAV operators has emerged as a challenge to French Air Force efforts to more quickly acquire General Atomics Reaper surveillance drones, officials briefed on the subject said.
The U.S. Air Force’s ability to put French operators into a packed training pipeline is seen as a “fundamental issue” as Paris studies the purchase of the air vehicles, the two officials said.
French Air Force commanders are drawing on lessons learned from the Serval counterinsurgency campaign in Mali to lobby for delivery of a first batch of two Reaper UAVs by the end of this year, one official said. The previous assumption expected delivery in two to three years.
A procurement decision, however, depends on whether money will be found in a defense budget under siege.
The Mali operations demonstrated a need for faster delivery of capable UAVs to support French and African troops, and possibly U.N. peacekeepers, the first official said.
France has begun pulling troops out of Mali and expects to have about 1,000 in theater by the end of the year, Army Col. Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the chief of the Defense Staff, told journalists April 11.
Even if the U.S. government could send Reapers to France under the Foreign Military Sales regime, it is unclear whether the U.S. Air Force could accommodate the training of French operators in the time frame.
A French purchase of the Reaper is seen as posing little problem to the U.S. Congress, even though the aircraft could later be armed, a French official said.
The U.S. Air Force’s need to train UAV operators is high as the service seeks to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support in Afghanistan. The U.S. still has 68,000 troops stationed in the South Asian theater, along with 9,000 British, 4,500 German, 1,400 Spanish and troops from other nations.
Since 2010, the U.S. Air Force has trained more UAV operators than manned aircraft pilots, and the demand for training remains strong.
Meanwhile, the service contract for France’s current Harfang UAV expires in October. EADS has proposed an upgrade to extend its service life.