France to decide on MALE drone soon

Dec. 17, 2010 at 6:05 PM
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PARIS, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- French Defense Minister Alain Juppe has said that a final decision on the purchase of a medium-altitude, long-endurance surveillance drone will be made in February.

"I am waiting for the month of February to have all the elements of appreciation on all the different possible choices," Juppe told journalists on a visit to the infantry and artillery training schools at Draguignan in the south of France.

His predecessor was supposed to have made the decision two months ago but a Cabinet shakeup by President Nicolas Sarkozy put Juppe is the government's No. 2 position, pushing back, also, the drone plan known as MALE.

Among the options considered is the American-made drone called the Predator.

"There are various hypotheses, among them an off-the-shelf purchase of an American drone called Predator," Juppe was quoted saying by local media.

The purchase is a short-term solution pending development of a system put together by the United Kingdom and France. The countries launched the project this year as natural partners given their operational needs in Afghanistan.

"We're in the process of reviewing how to assure continuity of service while waiting for the Franco-British cooperation which allows us to develop a new generation drone," Juppe said.

It remains unclear whether in fact the French government would proceed with the purchase of the Predator as an interim solution given that leading French officials had deemed earlier in the year that it would go against French defense and national security policy.

Many military experts however favor the Predator for immediate deployment in the Afghanistan combat theater.

The acquisition is expected to replace the current Harfang unmanned aircraft vehicle. To counter the Predator deal, EADS has offered to "sell four more Harfang air vehicles and deal with obsolesce issues on the current four units, three of which are deployed in Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan," the Defense News Web site reported.

It also said that Thales had also pitched a variant of the Watchkeeper high-altitude tactical drone, due to enter service with the British army next year.

The French air force wants the MALE drone to be operable as soon as possible, ideally from 2012. While two Harfang are in use in Afghanistan, a third is in use in France and a fourth is in repair in Israel.

France and Britain signed a defense cooperation treaty last month. It includes collaboration on the MALE drone.

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