PARIS — France expects to have six of the Airbus A400M airlifters equipped with self-defense and airdrop capabilities in the  "tactical" standard by the end of the year, defence procurement chief Laurent Collet-Billon said.

"The specification has been clear since summer … 2015," Collet-Billon, head of the Direction Générale de l'Armement, told journalists Feb. 10.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Airbus chief executive Tom Enders agreed in July that a combination of new deliveries and retrofit would lead to six aircraft at the tactical standard by the end of 2016.

The next A400M at "the acceptable standard" is due for delivery at the end of March or early April, the DGA chief said. Of the six, three will be new units, three with retrofit, a DGA spokesman said.

A capability for A400M inflight refueling for helicopters is under study and is due for delivery at a later date.

"We have not definitely closed the door on that," Collet-Billon said. "All we can say is: It will be complicated."

France has so far received eight A400Ms and the next unit will be MSN33, an Airbus spokesperson said. The two most recent deliveries were for Britain, which were equipped with a defensive aids subsystem specified by the British authorities. A total of 23 units have been shipped so far.

Airbus Defence & Space, which is behind schedule, is working with clients to agree to a new delivery timetable for the A400M equipped with capabilities set out in the contract.

"We're finalizing that timetable," the Airbus DS spokesperson said.

On an expected Indian order for 36 Rafales, New Delhi has requested specific modifications on an expected Indian order for 36 Rafales, the DGA head said.

The Indian prime minister said last year the purchase would be off-the-shelf.

On t The French pick of the Sagem Patroller over the Thales Watchkeeper for a tactical UAV, this reflected the need for common development of systems rather than striking a deal on "cross-procurement," the DGA chief said. There were legal constraints on both sides of the Channel for an open competition. and Army requirements, which led to the pick of the Patroller, which had been seen as an unlikely winner.

Previously, there had been was an agreement of a French order for the Watchkeeper in exchange for a British order of the véhicule blindé de combat d’infanterie, a fighting vehicle built by Nexter and Renault Trucks Defense.

French pilots were authorized earlier in the year for take-off and landing of Reaper drones in the sub-Saharan Sahel region, a DGA official said. General Atomics staff have been conducting the take-off and landing and handing over to French Air Force crews.

Studies are due to be made planned for Reaper take-off and landing in France, the official said.

Ten French pilots and operators are undergoing four months’ training for the Reaper at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico US airbase, magazine Air & Cosmos reported. That training will help relieve the burden of three deployments of two months in the Barkhane operation for crews in the Belfort squadron.

France will study options of fitting a French or US payload for electronic intelligence on the Reaper, the DGA official said.

Paris is due to sign with London in the next few weeks a memorandum of understanding for two-year development for a platform for a combat drone, dubbed unmanned combat air system, a second DGA official said. A contract is expected to be signed in June.

That contract is for the platform, not the mission payload, which is the critical element, Collet-Billon said. There will be two prototypes of the platform built "de-risking" — one British, one French — after the development phase. The Neuron technology demonstrator for a combat drone will continue test flights this year, feeding information for the UCAS, due to fly in 2025.

Among other work for aircraft, the ministerial investment committee is due in the next few weeks to approve an upgrade of 45 Mirage 2000D fighters, including arming with a canon. That compares to a previous expected 55 units for modernization.

There were trials for nighttime inflight refueling for the Caracal helicopter. Those tests were conducted in December with an Italian Air Force C130 flying from Pratica di Mare airbase, near Rome, the DGA spokesman said. "All went well," he said.

There are studies for the planned five intermediate frigates, Collet-Billon said. These will be 4,000 ton warships, a size that sells in export markets. The French Navy expects a heavily armed vessel, capable for anti-submarine, action at sea, surface-to-air, and strike inland, all on 4,000 tons and within budget. The ships will carry a helicopter and UAV.

Programs, apart from the A400M, are on time and within budget, he said.

On the 2015 equipment budget, Airbus received the largest amount at €2.05 billion ($2.29 billion), DCNS €1.64 billion, Thales €1.58 billion, and CEA, the atomic energy commission, €1.26 billion.

DGA ordered €11 billion of equipment and paid €10.7 billion, with feasibility studies receiving orders worth €727 million, and paid €852 million.

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