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Which MALE Drone for the French Forces

Which MALE Drone for the French Forces ? A Call to Reason

The « decision to choose the Heron TP drone, without any ITT, is difficult to understand: it is financially unfavourable, militarily unsound and industrially inexplicable »[1]... « Even if the U.S. Air Force's selection of Boeing over Airbus for its tanker programme made it extremely difficult for French senators to call for the purchase of a U.S. system,» ... « the lack of operational and industrial sense in the French government's decision to buy the Israeli Heron TP drone »[2] caused the Senate to vote an amendment to the Draft 2012 Defence Budget Law. « A homeric debate » took place during the night when senators discussed with the Defense minister the procurement of a non-French modified package consisting of seven air vehicles, two ground stations and a 10-years maintenance contract. An overwhelming bipartisan majority of the French Senate decided, on November 29, 2011, to vote the amendment and cut the amount allocated to UAV acquisition from 318 million euros ($423.8 million) to 209 million. « In the general interest » members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces explained, they tried « to separate the operational needs of the Armed Forces from industrial policy considerations »[2] ... « With this in mind, the senators wanted, in the short term » to give top priority to the safety of our troops by providing them with « the best equipment at the best price, in this case, the Reaper from General Atomics [3], while allowing, in the medium term, the emergence of a » dedicated « industrial sector by setting aside a larger amount of funds for French and European companies than that envisaged in the government's industrial plan »[2] ... « The truth is that there is no room for a purely national product line for only seven drones »[2] concluded the French senators, who voted the amendment by a show of hands, left and right together, with thirty-three votes against three. For months, both experts and the press had been writing that such a decision - the Defence Minister's - might be due to « some obscure reasons ». This procuring from two foreign companies, again without any ITT [4], and especially following the two former contracts signed in 1997 and 2001 with IAI [5], looks « more than suspect ». If no agreement is reached between the Senate and the National Assembly, experts believe this case might come under scrutiny of the French courts, following a  possible Commission of Inquiry set up by the Senate's new majority. Four senators, two socialist and two members of the presidential majority, signed a letter in the leading French newspaper, Le Monde online edition, dated December 9, 2011 [6]. Source and courtesy: Le Monde, Jean-Louis Carrère, chairman, Jacques Gautier [7], Xavier Pintat [8], Daniel Reiner [9], vice-chairmen of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces, and co-rapporteurs of Programme 146 "Equipment of Forces".(*) Joël-François Dumont. Translation © European-Security. Paris, December 9, 2011.

As from October 2013, our armed forces will have to cease operating their Harfang MALE drones. This because, on July 20, 2011, the French Defence Minister, Gérard Longuet, decided to equip our forces with the Heron TP, manufactured by the Israeli company IAI and imported by Dassault. This decision caused a surprise in the Senate. When a State endeavours to equip its forces, it is expected to do so without bias, in a rational, i.e. measurable way: what cost, what performance, what industrial leadership ? When possible, these objectives should be reconciled. If not, they should be ranked by order of preference, the top priorities going to the safety of the troops and the effectiveness of the forces.

In the Senate, following a long debate, an overwhelming majority of senators considered that the choice of the Heron TP was not justified. This was therefore not the formulation of a partisan option, but of the firm belief that this decision runs against our interests.

  • A militarily unsound choice

It is a fact that it took our Joint Services decision-makers a lot of soul-searching to come up with their definition of the "operational requirement" for MALE drones. This was achieved in 2009. Feedback from operating Harfangs in Afghanistan, comforted by the Libyan experience, shows that we need fast drones with a long combat range and ample loiter time, equipped with observation sensors enabling them to perform a good identification of targets. These drones should carry a mixed-weapons payload enabling them to destroy targets of opportunity.

Heron TP does not fully meet these requirements. It is large, slow, and vulnerable to degraded weather conditions. It was designed to fly over Israel's limited territory in order to listen in and observe its borders. At present it is not armed, and will never be able to carry a mixed-weapons payload, due to its structure. Finally, less than ten have been produced, and it is not technologically achieved. Perfecting its design, adapting it to our operational requirements, and having it certified by an independent authority will be long and costly. Furthermore, it will only be available in late 2015 at best.

Conversely, more than 150 Reaper drones have already been produced by the American manufacturer General Atomics. They are therefore interoperable with our allies. This drone was designed to be armed, fly fast, have a long loiter time, and it has proved satisfactory in Afghanistan and elsewhere for a number of years now. It will be available in late 2013, that is within a time-frame that will preserve our armed forces from experiencing a capability gap.

  • Financially unfavourable

For a same offer (seven drones, two ground stations, no customization to French requirements), the IAI/Dassault offer reaches 318 million euros, while that of General Atomics stays at 209 million. The difference: 100 million euros (+ 52 %) has no technical justification. It puts a useless strain on our public finances.

Dassault proposes to "Frenchify" Heron TP for 50 million euros. This offer does not seem very credible, knowing that last year a previous Dassault-IAI offer, for the same configuration, reached 700 million euros.

  • Industrially inexplicable

This drone being "30 % more expensive, 20 % less performing" as the Defence Minister himself put it, the only justification for buying the Heron TP could be to create a national industrial product line for drones.[10] This would naturally have the Senate's agreement, providing it serves the general interest and not only that of the manufacturer. Unfortunately, France has already bought drones from IAI company on two occasions – the Hunter in 1997 and the Heron 1 in 2001, the latter Frenchified by EADS to become the Harfang – and no national product line has ever materialized, despite the 380 million euros invested by the State and EADS. Would that be solely due to the French engineers' inadequacy ?

The truth is that there is no room for a purely national product line for only seven drones. We must unite. We have already done so with the British, within the framework of the Lancaster House treaty. And it would be even better if other Europeans teamed with us in this project, because isolation is a path we cannot afford to follow any more.

For all these reasons, the Senate has not granted the proposed budget authority. It has limited the outlay to the sole procurement of the number of Reapers required to meet, as soon as possible, our forces' needs in terms of effectiveness and safety. We suggest that the 109 million euros thus saved be allocated to upstream studies on the Future Combat Drone (nEUROn) and to the extension, as required, of the Harfang's service life. This is really preparing the future.

Build French, help the French aeronautical industry, yes, by all means yes. Buy more expensive, less performing and without competition, to the benefit of a dead-ended industrial line, no. The financial crisis forces us to maximize our investments. We call the government to reason.

(*) Jean-Louis Carrère (SP), chairman, Jacques Gautier (UMP), Xavier Pintat (UMP), Daniel Reiner (SP) vice-chairmen of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces, and co-rapporteurs of Programme 146 "Equipment of Forces".

[1] Décision financièrement désavantageuse, militairement contestable et industriellement hasardeuse in European-Security. Excerpt from the Amendment.
[2] French Senate's Call: Buy Reaper, Not Heron UAV in Defense News
[3] General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) is an affiliate of privately-held General Atomics
[4] ITT : Invitation to tender.
[5] Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.
[6] Drones : le mauvais choix du gouvernement français in Le Monde, December 9, 2011
[7] Le choix du Héron TP totalement israélien ne profitera pas à Dassault-Thales in European-Security
[8] Faire des choix guidés par des principes en veillant à la cohérence d'ensemble du format des armées in European-Security
[9] Le marteau-tournevis n’existe pas ! in European-Security
[10] Gérard Longuet : « Un seul pays maîtrise la technologie des drones »

Debate excerpts :

Official Documents :

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).