Correction: Britain prefers an unmanned reconnaissance capability over a combat capability, which contrasts with France’s stance.

PARIS — French and U.S. officials are conducting highly sensitive talks about fitting an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance pod on medium-altitude, long-endurance Reaper drones ordered by the French Air Force, an Armed Forces Ministry official said.

The discussions are taking a methodical pace because the subject of off-the-shelf ISR payloads and issues such as where UAVs can fly are considered sensitive to the U.S., the official noted Feb. 21.

That acquisition of a U.S. kit and other planned orders are part of a French Air Force modernization effort set out in the recently announced 2019-2025 military budget law.

The ISR pods would be fitted on the last six General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 drones ordered by France. The Reapers are due to be delivered next year.

The first six French Reapers ordered by France will be upgraded to Block 5.

France will arm the Reapers, which will initially carry the Hellfire missile, the official said. Later, the UAVs will be armed with European weapons including Brimstone and MMP missiles.

The French Air Force flies Reapers from the Niamey air base, Niger, in support of the Barkhane mission across the vast Sahel sub-Saharan region. One of the Reapers is used for training at the Cognac air base, southwestern France.

Projects with neighbors

There is some caution on the British side regarding a planned an Anglo-French prototype combat drone, dubbed Future Combat Air System—Development Program, the official said. There is less interest in London in combat capability and more for reconnaissance. A budgetary tightness in Britain may explain that cooling off of interest.

That British preference for reconnaissance contrasts with France. Paris is pursuing a European MALE UAV project with Germany, Spain and Italy and does not welcome a redundant capability.

Nonetheless, France is committed to the combat drone project, which promotes strong bilateral cooperation with the U.K., the official added. French officials are working on identifying technology areas such as internet connectivity, radar and cybersecurity, with a view to proposing areas of cooperation at a ministerial meeting in April.

The European MALE UAV project is seen as emblematic of European defense — too big to fail, the official explained. Paris plans to order 24 units.