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First strike of a French drone in the Sahel

The Ministry of the Armed Forces announced on Thursday 19 December the “first experimental fire” of an armed drone. A new asset in the arsenal of the fight against armed terrorist groups in the Sahel. These drones, whose primary mission remains intelligence, will now be able to destroy “targets of opportunity”.

Starting this Thursday, December 19, each Reaper MQ-9 will take off armed. Now that the “experimental shot“done, the drones will leave their base”loaded“, in case they spot a target. On their base in Niamey, the Reaper have special treatment: they sleep in shelters, in large sand-colored hangars, and they have air conditioning. The Mirage 2000, the fighter planes, installed a few tens of meters further on the Niamey air base, sleep them outside. It is not a question of fragility, but rather of discretion for this “system“of three drones.

The Reaper has glider wings, 20 meters wingspan, a fine fuselage of 11, and its propeller is at the rear. Until then, nothing new, this drone bought from the Americans has been in service in the Air Force since 2014. The novelty is under the wings, with these four metal supports, under which are now hung one or more bombs laser and GPS guided. The downside: where a “naked” Reaper can last more than 12 hours in flight, an armed Reaper sees its autonomy reduced by 20%, because of the load.

The drone will remain an ISR, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, but with the additional capacity to process a target that is briefly revealedColonel Hugues Pointfer, commander of the Niamey air baseat franceinfo

Within the Air Force, the speech is clear since the formalization, in September 2017, of the armament of the Reaper: the drones are not there to strike, they are there to collect intelligence. Until this day, “when a drone spotted a target, it was fighter aircraft, or helicopters that intervened and fired“explains one of the pilots deployed to Niamey, Lieutenant-Colonel Matthieu,”with the armed Reaper, no need to wait for support, we can directly deal with a fleeting target“.

Between the announcement by Florence Parly of the arming of French drones in the Sahel, and the first strike, two years and three months have passed. “As these drones are American“, details Colonel Pointfer;”it was necessary to have an authorization, then create a logistics chain to transport the equipment and install it on the machine, and finally train the pilots, in the United States. It all takes time“.

On the Niamey air base, in Niger, the information cabin of a Reaper MQ-9 drone, on December 15, 2019. (ARMY STAFF / AIR FORCE)

This American supervision does not however prevent the French “to operate” their drones differently. The American Reaper deployed in the Sahel are piloted from a base located in Nevada, in the United States. The French pilots are installed in Niamey, in a sort of container called Ground Control System, and they live at the true rhythm of a combat mission, in the midst of other soldiers. “The American pilots hit a target, go home at night while shopping, it's a bit confusing. Being on the ground, we are in the mood for an external operation“, confided a few months ago an Air Force officer.

Another French particularity, the drone crews are made up of four people, and not two: a pilot, an operator-sensor, who controls the camera, an intelligence officer, and an image analyst, who is, according to lieutenant-colonel Matthieu , “the Air Force's golden eyes, like the Navy has its golden ears to identify underwater noise“.

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