France Arms Its Reapers: Netherlands Signs for Four

 - March 28, 2019, 6:36 AM
France's Reapers—currently only with an ISR capability—have been used intensively during French operations in the Sahel region of Africa. (photo: Hugues Gillot/ECPAD)

A weapons integration contract has been awarded to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) for the French air force’s fleet of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which will lead to the nation joining an exclusive number of users that operate an armed variant of the type. To date, only the U.S. Air Force and the UK Royal Air Force operate weaponized versions of the Reaper, although an appetite from the U.S. government to open this remit to other allied nations that operate surveillance-only versions has led to a number of authorizations being made for weapons integration.

According to a Foreign Military Sales contract announcement on March 22, the U.S. government awarded $8.9 million to GA-ASI on behalf of France to carry out weapons integration for the MQ-9 fleet, which includes the production and integration of weapons kits on the French air force’s Block 1 Reapers. This will be carried out at GA-ASI’s Poway, California facility, and will be complete by the end of September 2020, with $4.4 million having been allocated at the point of award.

At an official level, France declared its intent to arm the UAVs in 2017, although nothing had been contracted with the U.S. government until now. The weapons fit was not disclosed, but given that it is being conducted through FMS directly with the OEM, it is likely—initially at least—to be the same configuration as the USAF’s and RAF’s in-service fleets, namely the AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile and the Paveway laser-guided bomb.

However, given the strength of the French defense industry and the government’s typical support of its own indigenous industrial capabilities, integration of French/European weapons at a later point seems likely. The prevalence of French forces in overseas operations on the African continent does not appear to be waning, and will inevitably drive demand for the armed variant for years to come.

The U.S. government had held a relatively conservative stance on the export of armed variants of Reaper until recently, permitting export only to the UK. However, it is likely to export an armed version of the developmental MQ-9B SkyGuardian derivative of Reaper to Australia and Belgium, while weapons integration work for the UK’s replacement of its MQ-9 fleet with the new version was contracted in January 2019. The sale of the MQ-9B to Belgium, initially in unweaponized form, was approved by the U.S. Department of State on March 25. Italy, meanwhile, was authorized by the U.S. State Department in 2015 to weaponize its MQ-9 fleet, although nothing has transpired to date, while Spain has also revealed an intent to eventually arm its Reaper fleet.

Elsewhere, GA-ASI was awarded an FMS contract on March 21 for four MQ-9 Block 5 Reaper variants for the Royal Netherlands Air Force under a $123.3 million deal, with $38.9 million allocated at the point of contract. This follows the July 2018 government-to-government letter-of-acceptance deal signed between the U.S. and Dutch governments for the acquisition, which came after a 2015 State Department authorization.

Work will again be conducted at Poway and is expected to complete by the end of 2020. The Netherlands is acquiring an ISR-only version of the Reaper and has no immediate requirement to arm its variants, according to details revealed by the government.