PARIS — France is set to arm drones that are currently used exclusively for surveillance and intelligence, a first for the French military, the defense minister said Tuesday.
Florence Parly said the decision will initially apply only to the six unarmed Reaper surveillance drones that France bought from the United States. Most of them, based in Africa’s Sahel region, are involved in the fight against Islamic militants.
Parly did not specify a time frame for when they would be armed or what kind of weapons would be deployed.
The drones wouldn’t become “killer robots,” Parly said. The French rules of engagement will apply, as will international law, laws governing armed conflict and protection of civilians, she added. The rules of engagement for armed drones will be “strictly identical” to those applied today to weapons such as Caesar artillery, cruise missiles and Rafale fighter jet, she noted.
Arming the drones will give the French military “endurance, discretion, surveillance and strike capability at the right place and the right moment,” Parly said in a speech in the southeastern city of Toulon.
Initially, this French weapons decision will apply to the Reapers ordered from the U.S., while down the road the planned European medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV will also be armed, Parly said.
France will be joining nations which have already armed or are in the process of arming their drones, namely the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, and some 10 other countries, she said.
The issue has long been sensitive in France, where some critics have expressed fears about pilots operating at a great distance from the battle ground. Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other senior executives involved in robotics and artificial intelligence recently stirred debate by calling for a ban on autonomous weapons.
France is working with Germany and Italy on the production of a European MALE UAV following a proposal from Airbus, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo.
Procurement of armed drones will be an extension of the services’ previous acquisitions of tanks and aircraft, she said, adding that “France would otherwise be left behind.”
Delivery of six more Reapers is due between now and the end of 2019, and these are expected to be “directly delivered” armed, the French Armed Forces Ministry said. The present six drones could be retrofitted with weapons in 2020.
Studies will also be conducted on arming those present six units with European weapons. The type of weapons will be decided next year, the ministry said.
The U.S. Air Force arms the Reaper with 250-kilogram bombs with varying guidance systems and the Hellfire missile, which has a range of 8 to 10 kilometers, the ministry said. The future acquisition will need to be on a “strictly identical configuration,” and U.S. authorization will be needed for the procurement.
Britain and Italy fly the Reaper, with the former arming its 10 units, the ministry said. Britain has also signed an order for 26 Predator drones capable of being armed. Italy flies nine Predators and six Reapers, which will be armed. Germany announced in January 2016 there would be a lease in 2018 for armed Heron drones.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.