UAVs in Future Operations: The French Experience and the Way Ahead


2013-02-06 By Lt. General (Retired) Gaviard

With the advent of “network centric operations,” it is becoming more and more difficult, to conceive the use of drones in an isolated fashion.

On the contrary, the use of drone must be envisioned as fully transverse within an independent ‘system of systems”.

Following this global approach, we shall study successively the role played by the UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) in the framework of the Joint ISR and the C2 in the the battlespace or world of sensors.

Lastly, we shall delve into the importance of concepts and doctrines of use that define the real operational needs.

These concepts and doctrines are based on the study of precise scenarios allowing to take into account the entirety of data exchanges between the designated platforms, to measure the operational efficiency of each of these platforms within a global system, as well as their complementarities.

This thorough examination should enable us to answer the question of “the place of aerial drones in future operations”.

Joint ISR

UAVs experienced an impressive growth in the last ten years because they bring “long-term” persistence to air power, an element that was lacking until then. This great capability evolution is only matched by air refuelling capabilities which enabled the airpower of the 1960s, the ability to sharply increase its deployment capacities.

This point is indisputable, but the JSIR capacities can’t be summed up to this sole capacity.

Let us examine the other abilities:

1.1 Space : After the launch of the Pléiade 1A satellite, its twin brother Pléiade 1B was launched in early December resulting in a slight increase of persistence capacity in terms of high definition spatial image. Unfortunately, regarding the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), vital in the ISR domain, the CERES satellite project has not yet been ratified.

1.2 The Piloted Platforms : The Rafale equipped with the NG reconnaissance pod and the Spectra system, the  Transall Gabriel, the FICR equipped with Astac pod, Awacs, the Hawkeyes, and the ATL2, in use before and during the Harmattan operation (code name for the French operations in Libya) provided the decision makers with plentiful and important intelligence to all the different levels of the Alliance, to the command of Poggio Renatico and to the national chain as well. Thus, the piloted platforms are essential for the collection analyses of information and thanks to their speed of penetration, their great agility of use and for some their polyvalence.

1.3 Human Intellignece(« humint ») :

In operations, the intelligence provided by the man on the field is crucial, In particular during recent conflicts, the information collected by Special Forces or by liberation forces always had a high value to the condition of verifying the intelligence with other sources.

We can safely assume that UAVs bring to the table an undeniable plus and a strong addition to all of the more traditional intelligence capacities. In the future, the drones will play a more important role.

However, in the short term because of their conceptions, UAVs will not replace all of the more traditional capacities that remain very important in regards to the elements described above.

C2’s Importance

Is it possible to picture an orchestra playing without a conductor?

In the same vein, how could we imagine UAVs flying alone and collecting information without clear directions collected by their referent C2?

Often neglected, it is a vital point , when we deal with piloted UAVs. The OODA loop (observation/orientation/decision/action) perfectly illustrates the actions led within a C2 that plans and conducts the “ISR manoeuvre. ”

Aren’t we then dealing with C4ISR?

In parallel, the C2 is in charge of defining the network’s architecture, allowing the distribution and exchange of the collected intelligence from the different “customers” that are either located in the strategic, operational or tactical levels, all the while taking into account the offered bandwidth.

As such, the quick deployment of the UAV ‘Harfang’ in Afghanistan contrasted with the hard time people had at the operational level in order to find in what way and to which “customers” they had to provide the acquired data.

The full motion video (FMV) and the ability of the technical staff of the “Belfort” squadron were a big help. However, it should be noted, that this technical solution has now been put into question because the FMV represents a real fragility in terms of security, as interceptions by terrorists groups of non-encrypted networks have shown.

In other words, it is becoming urgent today to replace UAVs in a global and robust operational framework: “sensor/C2/enabler” to determine their precise role and their mission within other systems.

CONOPS shapers should take a part in that process.

Operational Concepts

The United States and Israel, the two most advanced countries in terms of UAVs, have developed CONOPS fitting their own operational strategies with tailored road maps for acquisition processes.

The US Air Force went a step further by appointing a four-star General within its Joint Chief of Staff as the sole accountable individual for ISR.

Unfortunately, nothing of the sort at the NATO level has taken place.

Some member countries decided to acquire the expensive Global Hawk (AGS program) without CONOPS, to the chagrin of France.

It is nonetheless worthwhile to note that the French Armed Forces have so far not developed a concept or a real doctrine for the use of drones.

Our British friends, a traditionally pragmatic ally, and long time advocates of the slogan “no concept, no money”, do not seem to have written any real operational concepts on the subject!

Yet, the task does not seem to be arduous.

It is necessary to rely on real life scenarios or on feedbacks from the field.

But there is a need to conceive new scenarios in order to analyse how the different systems can achieve transfer data in the most efficient way and how the C2 can orchestrate between them the dynamic functioning of the systems, in the most pertinent manner possible.

Except for maybe Kosovo, UAVs always held aerial superiority in operations.

Let’s study the scenario where this is no longer the case.

In that instance, despite their size, reduced infrared and radar signatures, UAVs would become vulnerable because of their low speed and their predictive trajectories against more and more effective ground-to-air systems.

The question of how to use UAVs arises in such a context.

Keeping them at a secure distance, would mean augmenting their size, weight and cost.

Or, should we place stealth or discretion capacities, again increasing the costs?

Or, without aerial superiority will we have to relinquish the vulnerable “traditional” UAVs, and rather emphasize “Roem” spatial capacities that can for example, detect and precisely pin-point the enemies fire-control radar of air-to-ground missiles?

Another example: wouldn’t it be more interesting in certain cases to acquire solely electro-optic and infra-red in the form of reconfigured “blocs” that could easily fit on boards of existing aerial platforms or perhaps on civil light aircraft, at the cost of reduced flying hours.

Lastly, in regards to the different types of UAVs, is it necessary to perform a review with an eye to eliminating duplicate capacities, whereas budgets are decreasing?

The answers to all these questions and beyond lie in the repeated work led on “board” within a Operational-Technical Laboratory (OTL) such as the one ran by the DGA where military officers, engineers and industrials meet and discuss these issues.

Just like the work behind the “Neuron” UAV development, the industry is already working in this way by using a “virtual board”, allowing collaboration, between different European companies and partners of the project.

Couldn’t we follow that lead?


In a context of decreased budgets, it is becoming urgent to define the priorities of capabilities, in terms of UAVs in particular.

Only a global approach, via operational scenarios will allow to define concrete CONOPS.

This work will also allow us to define the ISR priorities depending on hypotheses of future uses and political ambitions stated in the upcoming White Book on defense.

In parallel, these operational concepts will allow one to identify the needs in terms of human resources, a crucial factor when will be put into action all these capacities bearing in mind that time is needed to recruit and train the future users of all these complex systems.

Article translated by Franck Znaty

For articles on drones or UAVs and Mali see the following links:

For a video which purportedly shows French forces entering Mali by air drop which was taken from French drones see the following:

For a look at evolving UCAS possibilities in the US see the following: