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France plots an autonomous course on drones

French armed unmanned aircraft will always have humans in the loop, defense ministry doctrine expert tells London UAV Technology conference

While many commentators see drones as a disruptor in conventional military thinking, for the French military they are nothing of the sort.

“Neither a revolution, nor disruption, [drones] are enablers and multipliers of military power,” said Colonel Xavier Foissey, leading Unmanned Aerial System & Counter-UAS doctrine expert at the French Ministry of Defense, on Tuesday, October 1.

The French drone doctrine emphasizes the human element.

During his presentation at the SMi-organized UAV Technology conference in London on October 1, Foissey took the time to touch on French World War I military pilot Georges Guynemer, whose motto “Faire Face!” (To face!) could just as easily be the motto of France’s modern drone doctrine.

France has been a latecomer to armed drones. It announced its armed drone program only in 2017, when it decided to arm six of its General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drones, some of which are currently deployed to Operation Barkhane in the Sahel.

The arming of such UAVs will give the French armed forces “targeting and precise deep strike capabilities, and “reinforce our credibility and maintain our strategic autonomy,” Foissey said.

Six more Reapers will have strike capability by the end of 2019 and the arming of six more is ongoing. Beginning next year some French Reaper drones will be capable of fielding Lockheed Martin’s Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.

Deployed is the operative word because France drone doctrine puts emphasis on the forward deployment of its drone crews and technicians. The cockpit and support for its drone missions are based in Niger.

“If you are conducting the war far away from the area operations you are not so much involved … if you are ready to lose soldiers you are determined,” Foissey said.

Currently France’s drones involved in African counter-terrorism missions provide the targets to Mirage 2000 fighter jets which launch the strikes after a target has been acquired.

“Targeting and precise deep strike capabilities … reinforce our credibility and maintain our strategic autonomy,” Foissey said.

Indeed the French system is focused on the centrality of human command-and-control. “We don’t use the term ‘autonomous’ system; the human is always in the loop,” he stressed.

The defense ministry plans to release the strategy on its website next year, he told The Defense Post.

French Reaper drone operator in Niger
A French drone operator at Niamey air base in Niger in 2015. Since 2014, the French army has used drones based at the Niamey to carry out intelligence and surveillance counter-terrorism missions as part of Operation Barkhane. Image: Fred Marie/Hans Lucas/AFP

“An armed drone is not a killer robot,” Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly said in 2017.

The French vision imagines that at the tactical level, nano and small unmanned aerial systems could be deployed by troops in combat, while other drones operate strategically with senior defense ministry officials approving strikes. French doctrine differentiates between “contact” drones, which have a range of up to 20 km; tactical drones whose range stretches beyond 20 to 200 km; and theater drones which can reach from 200 to 1,000 km.

France is part of a European program to research develop the Eurodrone medium-altitude long-endurance UAV. Germany and Italy are also participating in the development of this MALE UAV – though French doctrine prefers to avoid using the term autonomous to further emphasize that humans will remain in control of the entire system.

The French reconnaissance drone program began in 1995 with the purchase of four RQ-5 Hunter UAVs. French Hunters flew reconnaissance missions in 1999 and provided aerial patrols to the G8 Summit in Evianin 2003. French-operated EADS Harfang drones later participated in support of NATO missions in Afghanistan.

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