Paris — Systems company Thales and Safran's Sagem defense unit are competing to supply a tactical unmanned aerial vehicle for the French Army, as competitors Airbus and Israel Aerospace Industries are no longer in the tender, website La Tribune reported.

Thales has pitched Watchkeeper, a UAV built in a joint venture with Elbit, while Sagem has offered the Patroller, a drone based on a Stemme airframe.

"We are in the competition," a Thales spokeswoman said Sept. 10.

Sagem was not immediately available for comment.

The two companies submitted their best and final offers Sept. 4 to the Direction Générale de l'Armement, with the procurement office expected to award the contract for 14 units at the end of the year after a decision by the ministerial investment committee, La Tribune reported.

The DGA declined comment.

The French Army is keen to find quickly a tactical drone to replace the Sagem Sperwer, an interim UAV.

IAI Europe confirmed it was not going ahead in the competition. The company was ready to work as a partner to the prime contractor, which "could reduce cost, cut lead time and improve performance," said Daniel Abehsera, managing director of IAI Europe.

Airbus Defence & Space declined comment. The Airbus unit announced last year at the Eurosatory trade show it had teamed as prime contractor with Textron to offer the Shadow tactical drone.

Sagem at the Eurosatory trade show last year highlighted the importance of national sovereignty as there would be French control if the Patroller UAV were picked, and France would not rely on US clearance for technology or authorization by foreign authorities.

There is perceived political significance in UAVs, as the operators seek a national control of the key elements of image, audio and data transfer, encryption, and arming the aircraft, an industry executive said.

That national sovereignty issue requires foreign firms to sign up with domestic partners with the right technological capability to take on the prime contractorship, the executive said.

A French Army artillery unit has trained on a Watchkeeper sent over from Britain. Thales unveiled with local partner WB Electronics its offer of an armed version of Watchkeeper to Poland at the MSPO trade show.

A French order of Watchkeeper has been seen as a counterpart to a potential British order of the Nexter VBCI combat and infantry vehicle.

Thales developed the Watchkeeper based on the Elbit Hermes 450 and has delivered the UAV to the British Army. Thales and Elbit formed a UK joint venture respectively owned 49-51 percent.

Sagem has signed a collaborative agreement with Mexican partner Seguritech for joint development of systems including drones in Mexico, the French firm said at the Paris airshow.

Sagem flew the Patroller in the skies over Toulouse, southwest France, last October and November, showing its compliance with European civil aviation rules. That exercise showed the UAV could meet civil and security as well as military needs, the company said.

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