Surveillance Needs: France hopes a batch of unmanned and unarmed MQ-9 Reapers will fill a capability gap for medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs. (US Air Force)
PARIS — France expects the US will soon approve the speedy shipment of two Reaper surveillance drones after sending a formal request in early May, American and French sources said.
French acquisition of the first batch of unarmed General Atomics Reapers seals a long-running, politically charged debate on what type of aircraft the Air Force will use to fill a capability gap in medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft.
The Reaper deal aims to boost military capabilities, but a tight budget means France will cut orders for the Rafale fighter and multimission frigates while leaving the door open to purchasing a multirole armored vehicle off the shelf.
US officials received a letter of request from the French government this month, asking for the two air vehicles and a ground station to be delivered by the end of the year.
The two UAVs will be pulled out of the production line to allow an accelerated delivery to France for the Mali mission, a US official said.
“This is pretty unique,” the official said. “This is a sign of friendship and collaboration between the US and France.”
That approach reflects Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s concern to help allies, said Robbin Laird, with consultancy ICSA based here and in Washington.
Laird summed up Hagel’s view as: “What means can be generated to show practical support for allies facing near-term threats?”
A letter of acceptance from US authorities is expected soon, a French source briefed on the subject said.
The two Reapers are the first batch in an order of 12 theater surveillance UAVs cited in the French defense and national security white paper published April 29.
The letter of request from France asked for “up to 16” air vehicles, a second American official said.
France’s intervention in Mali showed an urgent need for a long-endurance, high-speed drone to provide cover in the northern part of the country. Paris will keep about 1,000 French special operations troops in that region as part of a counterinsurgency campaign after pulling out most of the soldiers sent over in the Serval mission.
“What’s important is to have the first two [Reapers] to plug the capability gap,” the French source said. In a second phase, more Reapers will be shipped in late 2015 or early 2016.
The budget for the Reapers is around US $250 million. That compares with an estimated €1 billion (US $1.3 billion) to develop a European medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV as proposed by Dassault Aviation and BAE Systems.
French industry has lobbied against buying the US kit, planned as an intermediate measure, fearing the temporary will turn out to be permanent.
Britain and France have signed up to build a new-generation theater surveillance UAV. BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation have announced plans to form a joint venture for that collaborative project.
Britain flies five Reapers and has ordered five more to be delivered this year. Some of those unmanned aircraft are armed.
Italy operates five unarmed Predator A UAVs, which have been upgraded to A+, and has ordered six unarmed Predator Bs or Reapers.
In total, about 48 Reapers are expected to be flying in those European air forces, the source said.
France will extend the contract beyond October for the EADS Harfang surveillance drone until the later Reapers arrive around 2016.
Last year, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reversed the previous administration’s pick of the Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Heron TP. IAI partnered with Dassault, which would have modified the aircraft to French needs, including a satellite data link.
A French official said the Heron TP was designed for Israeli needs and is too large and too slow for export sales.
In other measures for the French Air Force, the government has set a priority on purchasing Rafales over modernizing Mirage 2000Ds, as the twin-jet Rafale aircraft is expected to fly until 2040.
“What maintains the industrial and technology bases is the prospect of a fifth [Rafale] batch and a new standard with the fifth batch. That’s how we have to work,” the French source briefed on the subject said.
An order for a fifth batch of Rafales will make up the 225 figure for fighters in the white paper, down from a previous goal of 300 aircraft.
Defense officials will seek to modify the Rafale contract, allowing the government to suspend payment if Dassault wins an export deal.
A foreign sale of the Rafale would bring in cash from abroad. The French budget earmarks an annual €800 million to keep the line open at a minimum build rate of one aircraft per month.
Dassault is negotiating a Rafale sale with India, but Britain is pushing hard to sell the Eurofighter Typhoon despite New Delhi’s pick of the French company as preferred bidder.
One of the reasons India chose the Rafale was its multimission capabilities, while the Typhoon was seen as similar to the air-to-air role of the Indian Air Force’s Sukhoi fighters, Laird said.
A midlife upgrade of part of the Mirage 2000D fleet will go ahead, but the €700 million budget is seen as too high, and defense officials will negotiate hard to drive that down. Thales would fit a new radar to allow a multirole capacity.
The Mirage 2000D is considered a gap-filler with as little money as possible to be assigned to the modernization, the source said.
Frigates, Subs, Vehicles
For the Navy, the government will buy eight or more frégates multimission (FREMMs), instead of 11, from DCNS. That will comprise six anti-submarine warfare ships and two air defense models, with the latter two last off the line.
To keep the DCNS design office working at Lorient, western France, talks are due to start in 2015 or 2016 on development contracts for a future combat ship. This will be a less capable ship than the FREMM and is aimed at keeping work up after 2020.
In submarines, the six nuclear-powered attack subs will go ahead, although the first Barracuda boat will be delayed.
In land systems, Nexter is due to deliver the last véhicule blindé combat d’infantrie (infantry fighting vehicle) in 2015. The company has so far won few export contracts, so the outlook is dim.
If there is money, France will develop and build a new véhicule blindé multirole (multi-role armored vehicle). Assuming Nexter wins the tender, there will be work for the development office, but production will be only 15 percent of the total figure this decade. The requirement is for about 2,000 units.
If there is no money, France will buy a vehicle off the shelf.
Those two options make it all the more crucial for Nexter to seal a partnership deal with Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
If exceptional receipts fail to come in to make up the budget figures, land systems likely will be the loser.
The white paper identified areas such as aircraft, ships and vehicles as key capabilities to maintain to protect the defense industrial and technology base from a financial crisis.
Other areas include mission aircraft such as the A400M and Atlantique, missiles, land weapons, telecommunications and information systems, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“The priority is to preserve the industrial capacity for the military function,” the French source said.
That argument was deployed against financial officials seeking big spending cuts as the white paper on defense and national security was being prepared over the past 10 months.
That objective seems to have won the day as the white paper avoids cancellation and maintains continuity in a broad spectrum of capabilities.
The nuclear deterrence is ringfenced at an average annual €3.5 billion.
Contracts will be renegotiated on existing programs as numbers are cut, with delays in new launches or deliveries.
However, new development contracts will be signed to keep design offices open and maintain skills for future programs.
On the government side, the Direction Générale de l’Armement plans a big staff overhaul in its export support activities.
As the white paper has opted for continuity in capabilities, the DGA will need to recruit engineers to test, evaluate and renegotiate contracts.
Over the next six years, the DGA will look for a total €42 billion for the equipment budget, excluding the nuclear component. ■
Andrew Chuter in London and Tom Kington in Rome contributed to this report.