Heron TP UAV. (Israel Aerospace Industries)
TEL AVIV — Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has sweetened its bid to provide advanced unmanned aerial systems to the French Air Force with an offer for immediate deliveries of fully satellite-linked Heron-1s in support of ongoing operations in Mali.
The Israeli offer intensifies a protracted high-stakes battle against the MQ-9 Reaper built by US firm General Atomics and reflects a corporate commitment to win the right to supply next-generation medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to the French Air Force, executives here said.
The proposal commits IAI to immediate deliveries of two Heron-1s pending availability in less than four years of the larger, 1-ton payload Heron TP configured with the sensor and satellite communications (SATCOM) suite required by the French Air Force.
“This is a strategic program of extreme importance to IAI,” CEO Joseph Weiss told Defense News. “We are committed to providing the most economic, high-performance solution that fully meets operational and delivery requirements of the French Air Force.”
French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said, in a May 31 article in Les Echos, he aimed to procure two MQ-9 Reapers by the end of the year to support urgent, ongoing operations in Mali and elsewhere.
Gen. Denis Mercier, French Air Force chief of staff, said he is awaiting the minister’s decision on acquiring 12 UAS systems, with first initial operational capabilities planned before 2017. For immediate operational needs, Mercier expressed a similar preference for the Reaper, due to concerns about the time and cost involved in integrating SATCOM capabilities in the Heron TP.
However, in an interview with Defense News, Mercier stressed that discussions continue on the Israeli alternative.
IAI executives insisted their latest offer for the immediate supply of satellite-linked Heron-1s pending availability of fully SATCOM-capable Heron TPs would elevate their competitive edge.
“IAI is integrating its advanced SATCOM capabilities on the Heron TP and a fully integrated system will be available at the end of the current year. Therefore, there will not be any problem to meet the delivery schedules required by the French Air Force or any other customer,” IAI said in a prepared statement.
Shaul Shahar, managing director of the Malat Division of IAI, said Heron-1 is operational in Israel and more than 10 customer nationsand has proved itself in multiple theaters, including Afghanistan with the French and German air forces.
He added, “We’ve proven the successful integration of SATCOM in the French Harfung UAS, which is based on the Heron-1, that the French Air Force has deployed for years and is operating these days in Mali.”
Moreover, because the Heron TP, with a wingspan akin to a Boeing 737, was designed and built according to commercial aircraft standards, IAI executives claim it will be easier to certify for operations in multiple theaters.
IAI has been working for years with civil aviation authorities in Israel, Europe and the US to certify its Heron-1 UAS for commercial use. In April, a COMSAT-equipped Heron-1 demonstrated its ability to operate safely while maintaining beyond-line-of-sight radio communication via satellite.
“We’re confident that the Heron TP can be certified quickly,” Weiss said.
“When you combine that with the performance, value and IAI’s heritage over more than 40 years of UAS development, we believe we’re in a very strong position to provide this strategic capability for France,” Weiss added. ■
Andrew Chuter in Paris contributed to this report.