By Pierre Tran
Paris – France is due in November to arm its Reaper medium-altitude, long-endurance drone with the GBU-12 smart bomb, with the Hellfire missile to be fitted next year, a defense source said.
The French Air Force arms the Mirage 2000 fighter jet with the GBU-12, said the source, adding, “The next step is the Hellfire at the end of 2020.”
The GBU-12 is a laser-guided bomb.
A delivery of six armed Reaper UAVs to the Air Force is in the 2019-2025 military budget law, allowing France to follow the British and US in flying weapons on the Reaper fleets.
“The GBU-12 capability will be available from the end of 2019,” said a spokesman for the Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) procurement office. The capacity for the Hellfire will be available at the end of 2020, he added.
The third batch of Reapers is due to be delivered this year, with the fourth and final set to be shipped next year, he said.
France ordered in December 2016 the fourth batch of Reapers for delivery in 2019. That system, which will be shipped a year later, will be delivered in the Block 5 version, as will the third batch.
The first two batches of the UAV will be upgraded from Block 1.
Each batch comprises three units.
Adding weapons will roughly halve the Reaper’s flight time to some 10 hours, as the bombs or missiles increase the drag effect on the drone, the source said.
That shorter flight time boosts the importance of preparing, or “shaping,” the strike mission when flying a critical reconnaissance mission the day before.
The French forces expect to fly at least 10 Reapers next year, and there is much thought on where to deploy the drones.
The Air Force has been flying the Reaper from an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger, to support French and allied troops in the Barkhane military mission across the sub-Saharan Sahel region.
Potential deployments include Djibouti, Iraq and Syria.
One of the factors in deciding that dispatch is “co-deployment” with the US, with shared logistics, training and equipment in the “US Reaper footprint,” the source said.
That would maintain close ties forged in operations in Niger.
There are French special forces alongside British and US units fighting Islamic State (ISIS) insurgents threatening Kurdish communities in northeast Syria.
US Reapers are based in that region, with the consent of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, so a despatch of French Reapers could draw on mutual support.
The French forces continue to rely on General Atomics, the manufacturer of Reaper, for take-off and landing the UAV in Niger.
There are only four or five French pilots “on the ground” to fly the Reaper, so there are too few to send to the US for the two or three months needed to train for take-off and landing.
In the Barkhane operation, France is allied with the G5 Sahel group comprising Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad.
That military alliance seeks to fight against fundamentalist jihadist forces.
France is also active in the Middle East Levant, spanning Iraq and Syria.