PARIS — Britain is exploring with France a joint training effort for pilots and procurement of the Reaper, reflecting an intense use of the surveillance drone in Africa and the Middle East, said British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon.
The UK and France both operate the General Atomics Reaper, with the British Royal Air Force flying armed versions of the drone against Islamic State insurgents in Iraq. France recently received a third Reaper.
"I specifically want to talk to Minister Le Drian today about Reaper UAV capacity," Fallon told journalists here. "There is bottleneck on training drone pilots and we're all short of drones.
"We have 10, they're out on service at the moment, each one of them. We don't have spare capacity to allocate anywhere else. Maybe there is much we could do there in common, either in the training or the procurement."
The RAF had flown some 250 airstrikes against IS fighters in Iraq by May 27, a British official said. That was the second-highest number of airstrikes in Iraq after the US.
Tornado fighters take off morning and evening almost every day, intended to support the Iraqi army. The armed British Reapers fly as part of that intervention.
The possible Anglo-French cooperation could include training, personnel, logistics and support features.
A joint support for the Reaper was discussed among European Union defense ministers two weeks ago, Fallon said. The medium altitude, long endurance UAV is being flown in Niger, Chad, Libya and the Middle East.
France received a third MQ-9 Reaper, less than two months after the contract was awarded, General Atomics said May 29. The first two Reapers flown by the French Air Force have accumulated more than 4,000 flight hours since deployment in January 2014.
French pilots and operators fly the Reapers from the Belfort squadron at Cognac airbase, to deliver increased situational awareness, combat search and rescue, and troop support, General Atomics said. A total 12 units are due to be in service by 2019.
France is looking very carefully at the Watchkeeper tactical UAV system, a senior British official said. "They've got a procurement process but it's fair to say Watchkeeper is a strong candidate," the official said.
Among the topics for discussion at the meeting between Fallon and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, were the sharing of intelligence and the UK's work with key allies France and the US under its "internationalization" policy, a key feature of the British Strategic Defense and Security Review. The newly re-elected Conservative government launched the review, which is due to be completed in the autumn. American and French officers are part of the review team.
Britain is engaged in intelligence cooperation and in fusion centers around the world, and engaged in an increasing amount of joint work with its allies.
As part of that bilateral cooperation, HMS Kent sailed as the anti-submarine frigate to protect the Charles de Gaulle when the French carrier sailed off the Persian Gulf earlier this year and launched French airstrikes against IS fighters in Iraq.
All pilot training for the Reaper is held at the US Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, a UK Defence Ministry spokesman said.
Air Force pilots from Britain, France, Italy and the US attended a Reapers users group meeting at the Ecole Militaire staff college in January.
Last year, the Italian Air Force said it was planning in-house training for its Predator and Reaper pilots, since US-based training was not generating enough pilots to keep up with demand. Any training school set up in Italy could be open to pilots from other nations, Italian officials said at the time.
Italy already hosts foreign manned aircraft trainee pilots at its Lecce training school.