The French army has a real interest in acquiring the Thales UK/Elbit Systems-developed Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air system, with a contract to potentially be approved next year, said Laurent Collet-Billon, chief executive of France's DGA defence procurement agency.

Speaking in Paris on 22 February, less than one week after the first suggestion of a French Watchkeeper acquisition emerged, Collet-Billon said interest from the French military is "very high because we know it is so qualified for civil airspace". He added: "The army does want Watchkeeper."

French army personnel will visit the UK late this year to receive training on the British Army's new intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance system, before an evaluation in early 2013 using one ground control station and up to two air vehicles, which will be deployed to the south of France. "We will be seeing how it operates with our information systems," Collet-Billon said.

 Watchkeeper - Thales UK

© Thales UK

Watchkeeper air vehicles have undergone flight trials in the UK and Israel

He added that by mid-2013, the French government will "make a statement on whether we purchase the system, how many and for how long". Assuming all goes to plan, a contract could be signed "before the end of 2013".

In addition to its utility for the French army, Collet-Billon also suggested the Watchkeeper system could be operated from ships to complement the navy's new NH Industries NH90 maritime helicopters and "increase our surveillance capacity".

Source: Flight International