For France, armed military attack drones mark not a revolution in warfare but, an evolution.
France is a relative latecomer in the development of armed drones. Paris announced only in 2017 that it would begin arming its Reaper MQ-9 Block 5 drones to fire missiles at targets. The current French program is focused on American made GBU-12 Paveway II but, beginning next year, France will start measured adoption of U.S. Hellfire missiles as well.
French-American military relations go back to Marquis de Lafayette’s timely trip to America to join the revolution, and the development of France’s armed aerial drone program marks the latest chapter in that illustrious history.
In late October, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was awarded a $17.8M federal contract to support France’s drone aspirations. Under the agreement, the American firm will provide France with weaponized drones as part of the “MQ‐9 Block 5 weaponization and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Pod Integration effort,” according to a U.S. Defense Department statement. This contract will be completed by 2021. France currently deploys the EADS Harfung a reconnaissance drone jointly developed by France and Israel.
Speaking at a London UAV Technology conference organized by SMi, French Colonel Xavier Foissey downplayed the magnitude of the change. The new deadly drones will enhance the F2T2EA targeting process an acronym which refers to the find, fix, track, target, engage and asses process.
“The only change is that in some missions the weapons launch will be from the Reaper, not the Mirage 2000s,” he said a reference to the French-built Fighter jets. French Mirage jets have played a critical role in the French conflict in the Sahel against various Salafi jihadist terrorist groups. Most notably the deployment of French Mirage jets ended a bloody ambush of Nigerien soldiers and American Special Forces soldiers near the village of Tongo Tongo in Niger in 2017. The attack left four Americans killed and two wounded and only ended when the Mirage jets appeared on the scene. Friendly fire concerns result in the French holding their fire. Instead, the of the Mirage jets conducted some noisy aerial manoeuvres — enough to induce the terrorists to cut and run.
Though drones lack this and other capabilities, Foissey described drones as “just additional assets in support to or in place of crewed combat aircraft.”
As such the French military has sought to forward deploy its drone cockpits and flight crews into the Sahel. Foissey admitted that doing so increased the risks of casualties.
“It is important to deploy crew because it improves operations at the tactical level and at a strategic level it shows a determination,” he said of the French doctrine while speaking in a personal capacity.
This policy differs from the practice of the United Kingdom and the United States which have often sought to place such highly skilled pilots out of the danger zone resulting in drone pilots thousands of miles away but, reducing the fear of casualties.
“If costs weren’t an issue, I believe other countries would follow this practice due to the positive impact it would have on morale,” said Richard Felton, the former Director-General of the Defense Saftey Authority at the U.K. Ministry of Defense who moderated the SMi-organized event. Felton said forward deployment could improve operational tempo and morale.
France’s drone doctrine will be published early next year and made available to the public.
With fears of autonomous “killer robots” a reoccurring theme in science fiction and an emerging one in popular culture, the French doctrine like that of other NATO allies seeks the development of a human-centred system.
Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly summarized the thinking of French defense officials in a 2017 statement: “An armed drone is not a killer robot,” she said.