January 15, 2010:
France has adapted the Israeli Heron TP UAVs to serve as a Predator substitute, until a new design can be developed in France. Equipped with a powerful (1,200 horsepower) turbo prop engine, the 4.6 ton Heron TP can operate at 45,000 feet. That is, above commercial air traffic, and all the air-traffic-control regulations that discourage, and often forbid, UAV use at the same altitude as commercial aircraft. The Heron TP has a one ton payload, enabling it to carry sensors that can give a detailed view of what's on the ground, even from that high up. The endurance of 36 hours makes the Heron TP a competitor for the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper (or Predator B), which is the same size as Heron. The big difference between the two is that Reaper is designed to be a combat aircraft, operating at a lower altitude, with less endurance, and able to carry a ton of smart bombs or missiles.
The French variant of the Heron TP is called Harfang ("Eagle"), and three were purchased a year ago, and sent to Afghanistan last Summer. Since then, the three UAVs have spent 1,400 hours in the air. That's actually quite low, coming out to about one sortie a week per aircraft. There have been technical problems with the Harfang, and much of the time, only one of the three were available for service. The Harfang usually flies missions of less than 24 hours.
To help fill the UAV gap, France has been sending smaller Sperwer UAVs. These have served in Afghanistan before, but have since been replaced by their users. The Sperwer LE (Long Endurance) weighs 772 pounds, carries a 110 pound payload, is 12 feet long and has an endurance of 12 hours. Sperwer can operate up to 200 kilometers from its ground control unit. But the Sperwer uses a noisy engine (think lawnmower) and flies low enough to be heard. This did not turn out to be a problem, as the people below, if they were Taliban, either started shooting at the UAV, or tried to run away. The Sperwer suffered from the heat, dust and wind that is so abundant in Afghanistan. But the Canadians, who used them for several years, figured out how to make them work. Canada has since replaced its Sperwers with Israeli Herons.
Despite the technical problems with the Harfangs in Afghanistan, France has ordered a fourth one. France has tried to buy Predators, but the waiting list is long, and French troops need UAV support now. European aircraft manufacturers have yet to come up with a world class UAV design (like the American Predator and Reaper, or the Israeli Heron, etc.)