According to French defense blog Secret Défense, the French MOD has decided to use General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones to fulfill the French Air Force requirement for Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE). France is planning to buy four aircraft and two ground stations; according to the blog editor Jean-Dominique Merchet, the French MOD is expected to announce the selection as early as next week.
France considered four options for this MALE program. The extension of the current Harfang (IAI Heron) operating as part of the interim MALE program (Système Intérimaire de Drone Moyenne altitude longue endurance – SIDM) was the least costly but meant maintaining current capabilities throughout the decade. Another approach was to extend SDIM with the IAI’s larger platform, the Heron TP, as proposed by Dassault. Awaiting the completion of the ambitious Talarion, developed by EADS, was another option, which required further coordination with the Germans.
Fielding the Reaper, already operated by the U.S. Air Force and British Royal Air Force (RAF), will enable the French to efficiently support operations in Afghanistan utilizing U.S. command and control infrastructure. Part of the Reapers operating from bases in Afghanistan are controlled over satellite links by members of the U.S. Air Force 42nd attack squadron and RAF No. 39 squadron, both units are located at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. If the French procurement is concluded, it is likely that the French Reapers will follow the same procedure. In contrast, Harfang, as other Heron I UAVs are operated from bases Afghanistan by French, German, Canadian and Australian operators, located in the country (although some of the drones are equipped with satellite links, enabling global operations similar to the Reapers).
While the French maintain their Reapers will be restricted to reconnaissance operations, Paris it likely to follow Britain, that declared their drones will not be used in an offensive role but could not resist the temptation to use the drones to efficiently close the ‘sensor-to-shooter loop. France is hoping to further collaborate with Britain in the development of a future unmanned aircraft, either a growth version of Mantis or a future unmanned combat aircraft, combining the experience gained with the British Taranis and European nEURon program, led by the French.