Reapers Displacing French And Maybe German Herons

 - October 4, 2013, 11:16 AM
The French Harfang UAS is based on the Israeli Heron UAV, but with communications and support provided by EADS Cassidian. (Photo: EADS Cassidian)

Even as French aircrews began training in the U.S. on the Reaper UAS, EADS Cassidian announced that it had received a one-year extension to its support contract for the Harfang UAS that the French air force intends to replace with the American drone. Cassidian also noted that the similar Heron UAS operated by the German air force and supported by the company has logged 15,000 hours over Afghanistan. The Germans are also considering a Reaper buy as a replacement for the Israeli-origin UAVs.

The French air force has two Harfangs deployed to Mali. According to official French defense publications, they performed well during Operation Serval earlier this year. The new contract with Cassidian provides for an extra 1,000 flight hours per year, for a total of 3,000. But the Harfang system was unexpectedly costly to acquire and uses expensive Ka-band commercial satellite links for command, control and communications (C3). What’s more, French defense officials have said they need much greater coverage of Africa than two Harfang systems can provide.

A Cassidian official told AIN last June that the company had proposed buying four to six more Heron UAVs from Israel and upgrading them for France. A few days later, however, French defense minister Yves Le Drian told French legislators that there was “no alternative” to the Reaper. The U.S. Congress was soon notified of the possible $1.5 billion sale to France of 16 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs and eight mobile ground control stations, Ku-band communications systems, 40 Raytheon MTS-B EO/IR video systems and 40 GA-ASI Lynx SAR/GMTI radars. The sale has proceeded, although a French defense official has told AIN that the numbers of aircraft and systems to be acquired are lower than stated to Congress.

The official acknowledged to AIN that the French are facing sovereignty issues over the C3 system for the Reaper, just as the UK did when the Royal Air Force acquired the Reaper UAS for use over Afghanistan. But an alternative solution named Voltiger, proposed in 2010-11 by Dassault and based on the Israeli Heron TP UAV, “was no better than the Reaper, in terms of sovereignty,” he said.

Cassidian inherited the contract to operate and maintain the German air force Herons in Afghanistan when it bought 51 percent of Rheinmetall Airborne Systems last year. Three aircraft and two ground stations have been deployed since 2010, and “have proved to be extremely reliable and high-performance,” Rheinmetall said last year. The company has since been renamed Cassidian Airborne Solutions. Its head of sales, Ralf Hastedt, said recently that “the positive system and mission experience gained by the German air force and industry will be incorporated into future medium-altitude long-endurance [Male] UAS.”

However, Ruag Aerospace (teamed with General Atomics) has been promoting the Reaper UAS to Germany for the past two years. The two companies announced in late June that they were extending their partnership by collaborating on a plan to achieve European military airworthiness certification for the Reaper. Cassidian’s contract to support the German Herons expires in April next year. Meanwhile, last June’s plea by aerospace leaders from Alenia, Cassidian and Dassault for European governments to fund development of a pan-European Male UAS appears to have had little effect.