PARIS — France has signed a contract with Safran for 14 Patroller tactical UAVs for the French Army, with entry into service in 2018, the Defense Ministry and the aerospace and engines group said in separate statements.

"Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended during his visit to the Sagem plant (Safran group) at Montluçon the contract signing for the tactical drone system by the deputy director of the Direction Générale de l'Armement and the chief executive of Safran," the ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

The contract for the Patroller UAV, including 12 years maintenance, is worth some €300 million (US $341.7 million), French media have previously reported.

A ministerial investment committee backed a pick in January by the Army and DGA of the Sagem Patroller, which beat a competing offer of the Watchkeeper from Thales, a defense systems company.

"The competition was very strictly conducted jointly by DGA and the Army, which I welcome," Le Drian said in prepared remarks. Flying tests were conducted in the summer to compare the two competing products.

"Finally and without any doubt, it was the Patroller which showed itself better able to meet the Army’s needs, particularly its electro-optical capability, endurance and capacity to fly over domestic territory," he said.

The Patroller is "made in France," with 85 percent of content from French suppliers, including mainly small and medium-sized companies in the 25-strong Patroller Cluster group, he said. The program will create 300 highly qualified jobs, not only at Montluçon but also at other sites around the country.

Job creation is a key issue, in view of stubbornly high unemployment of some 10 percent and presidential elections due to be held next year. Montluçon is in the Auvergne region, central France, which contains the constituency of President François Hollande, who has pledged to cut the jobless rate.

"If the Patroller is sold in exports — and I believe certain countries have already shown interest — other jobs will be created," Le Drian said.

Sagem CEO Martin Sion said: "Several countries have already expressed their interest in the Patroller, especially in Asia and the Middle East."

Thales had pledged to boost French content to 30 percent from 10 percent on the Watchkeeper, daily Le Monde reported. That tactical UAV is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 and is built in Britain by a joint venture held 49 percent by Thales and 51 percent by Elbit.

Thales had pledged to boost French content to 30 percent from 10 percent on the Watchkeeper, based on the Elbit Hermes 450 and built in Britain by a joint venture held 49 percent by Thales and 51 percent by Elbit, daily Le Monde has reported.

The contract includes two ground stations and communications for flying the drones, two training stations, and support systems, the ministry said. The UAV will be equipped to carry two payloads on each flight, initially comprising both an electro-optical/infrared/laser capability and a radar, followed later by a signals intelligence system while taking off the radar.

The UAV, capable of flying for 20 hours and up to 20,000 feet, is based on the ES-15 aircraft from German partner Ecarys. There is to be capability for manned flight.

France initially intended to select the Watchkeeper, which is in service with the British Army, boosting the chances for the UK to pick the Nexter VBCI infantry fighting vehicle in a bilateral cooperation.

But Safran had insisted on a full competition and went on to win the pick.

"Vincent Imbert, deputy director of the French defense procurement agency (Direction Générale de l’Armement), handed the (Tactical Drone System) contract to Philippe Petitcolin, chief executive officer of Safran, and Ross McInnes, chairman of the Safran board of directors," Safran said in a statement.

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