March 15, 2012: The French Army has purchased another two years of support for its Sperwer UAVs. This may be the end of the line for the French made Sperwer, which has lost out in competition to American and Israeli UAVs (like Predator and Heron). Most of the 140 Sperwers produced since the 1990s were bought by the French Army. Sperwer got its first heavy use during the Balkan peacekeeping missions in the 1990s. Five nations also bought Sperwer, but most have since retired theirs and bought American and Israeli UAVs.
Canada, for example, bought 21 Sperwers, including ten second hand ones obtained from Denmark. The Canadians used their Sperwers heavily in Afghanistan and paid to improve the Sperwer flight control software, to make the UAV more stable when landing under windy conditions. It's often windy in Afghanistan. Still, troops are envious of UAV models they saw used by other nations.
The $2.6 million Sperwer LE (Long Endurance) weighs 351 kg (772 pounds), carries a 50 kg (110 pound) payload, is 3.9 meters (12 feet) long, and has an endurance of 12 hours. Sperwer can operate up to 200 kilometers from its ground control unit. It is launched from a vehicle mounted catapult but lands conventionally.
The Sperwer uses a noisy engine (think lawnmower) and flies low enough to be heard. This has not proved to be a problem, as the people below, if they are Taliban, either start shooting at the UAV or try to run away. Despite this, Canadian troops came to depend on their Sperwers and many preferred to have more of them rather than another, newer UAV. The troops learned that operator experience is a major factor in UAV success, and much of that would be lost if they switched a new model. Canada eventually replaced their Sperwers with Israeli Herons.
The Sperwer suffered from the heat, dust, and wind that is so abundant in Afghanistan, and there have been several attempts to get an improved UAV to the troops. For a while, Canada was going to buy some Predators, not just because these one ton UAVs are more capable than Sperwer but because Predator could carry Hellfire missiles. But this became a political issue in Canada, where many politicians did not like the idea of an unmanned aircraft carrying, and using, missiles, even if the actual firing was done by a human operator on the ground. Everyone agreed that a larger UAV would be better, especially one that could carry a laser designator and be more stable in the wind.
The French Army is planning to buy the new Watchkeeper UAVs from Britain. The Watchkeeper 180 and the Watchkeeper 450 are based on Israeli designs (the Hermes 180 and 450). The Watchkeeper 450 is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It is also being equipped to carry Hellfire missiles. This UAV is already designed to carry two extra fuel tanks under its wings. Each of these fuel tanks weighs more than the 50 kg (110 pound) Hellfire missile. The Watchkeeper 450 is 6.5 meters (20 feet long) and has a 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). The Hermes 450 is the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces, and twenty or more were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon. The smaller (4.5 meters/14 feet long, 6.5 meter/20 foot wingspan) Watchkeeper 180 weighs 196 kg (430 pounds), has a maximum payload of 35 kg (77 pounds), and can stay in the air for ten hours at a time. Both UAVs have day/night cameras and can supply ground troops with live video. British troops have already been using other UAVs and are convinced of the benefits of live video in support of combat operations.