The head of the French DGA defence procurement agency has defended the selection of the Sagem Patroller for the French army’s tactical unmanned air vehicle requirement, insisting the competition was fair and did not dismiss the rival Thales Watchkeeper from the outset.
Acknowledging the planned acquisition of the Patroller for the first time, following several weeks of speculation, Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the DGA, told media in Paris on 10 February the competition was “certainly not against the Watchkeeper”, originally developed for the British Army.
“It’s a long story,” Collet-Billon says. “The Watchkeeper [previously] experienced a different assessment by the army, but on both sides of the Channel it was concluded that there had to be a competition.
“The competition took place – we opened it to offers. This is the choice of the army…[it] decided it, and there will be no modification to that.”
Derived from the Elbit Systems Hermes 450, the Watchkeeper has long been pitched to France, but despite the country previously trialing the system, it has repeatedly failed to be selected.
The tactical UAV programme aims to replace the Sagem Sperwer UAV, and some 30 air vehicles are expected to be procured, although an order has not yet been placed.
Another UAV operated by the French military – the air force’s General Atomics Aeronautical Systems medium-altitude, long-endurance MQ-9 Reaper – is also being evaluated by the DGA, as it seeks to introduce a French payload to the US-built platform.
This would be a signals intelligence system, and while France has a wealth of suppliers of such sensors, it would have to first be authorised by the US authorities.
Additionally, French pilots were in January authorised to begin training to launch and land their Reapers. Performing take-offs and landings of the MQ-9 are notoriously difficult due to its glider-like configuration, but French personnel will begin undergoing instruction this year at Holloman AFB in New Mexico.
Collet-Billon adds that the Reapers could be operated on French territory in future.
France's Reapers are not armed, but the DGA chief says adding weapons is a long-term ambition for its forces. However, defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian would “want a debate on this before making any decisions”.
France is also involved in the three-country Euro MALE effort alongside Germany and Italy, and a design definition decision is expected in the coming months, but a decision on the payload is not anticipated in the same timeframe.
“We will start the definition in June and then two years later will look to develop it,” he adds. “It should not simply be a European Reaper that is available in 2025 and is more expensive. Otherwise, it will fail.”
More testing is also expected in France on another European effort, the Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator.
Dassault completed a series of tests in 2015 using the aircraft, and Collet-Billion says more evaluations will be carried out by France in 2016.