In July 2017 France asked its military commanders in Niger (Africa) what they could best use to more effectively deal with Islamic terrorists in the region (especially nearby northern Mali). The commanders said that arming the five American RQ-9 Reaper UAVs deployed there would make a big difference, cost little and be implemented quickly. A month later the French government ordered the French Reapers be equipped to carry and use Hellfire missiles. France has been using Hellfire on its Tiger helicopter gunships since 2008 and Tigers in Mali have used Hellfires regularly there since 2014. These Hellfire armed Tigers have been firing over a hundred missiles a year in Africa since then. The Tiger carries up to eight Hellfires but the problem has been short endurance (2-3 hours) and low readiness (under 50 percent) of the helicopters. The readiness is closer to 40 percent in Africa because of the heat and dust. Reapers have none of those problems.
France began using the Reaper UAV in Africa in 2014 but they were unarmed. The Reapers are built to handle hot and dusty conditions and have about twice the readiness and over five times the endurance of the Tigers. The French Reapers would often find Islamic terrorists in Mali but by the time a Tiger helicopter, a fixed wing warplane (equipped with smart bombs) or ground troops could arrive the Islamic terrorists were often no longer vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile the Americans had been using Hellfire armed Reapers and smaller Predators throughout Africa and the Middle East regularly for nearly two decades.
France had planned to arm its UAVs eventually but the comments by its counter-terrorism experts in Africa and the Middle East convinced the government that the quickest way to deal with the Islamic terrorists it was finding (but unable to attack in time) was simply to arm the Reapers. The five already in Africa were quickly equipped with missiles. Six more Reapers on order were to be delivered equipped to use Hellfires. The manufacturer reported that could be done without delaying the delivery of those six Reapers (which are all to arrive by 2019). This is another reason France has stuck with Reaper rather something developed in France or Europe.
Back in 2013 France decided that its locally developed Harfang UAV was not sufficient and decided to try out the Reaper. As expected the Reaper performed as well as other NATO users had reported and soon the initial order was increased to twelve. In 2013 two Harfang UAVs were in Mali (operating from neighboring Niger) and some American RQ-9s were helping out as well. French UAV operators could see the difference in effectiveness up close and constantly.
France wanted the RQ-9s delivered quickly and apparently this sale was dependent on the U.S. being able to deliver the RQ-9s before the end of 2013. That was accomplished and the two French reapers were in service by January 2014 and were soon in Africa. Since then France has stationed most of its Reapers in Africa. Of the six Reapers it currently has only one stays in France (for training ground crews) while the others continue to serve in Africa.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meter (36 foot) long aircraft, with a 21.3 meter (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1 Predator. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations.
The Harfang was a good idea s it was based on the Israeli Heron Shoval UAV, which in turn is very similar to the MQ-1 Predator and was selling well to foreign customers who cannot obtain the MQ-1. In addition to being one of the primary UAVs for many armed forces (Israel, India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador), the United States, Canada, and Australia have either bought, leased, or licensed manufacture of the Heron. France bought four Harfang ("Eagle") UAVs and used them in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali since 2009.
The Israeli Shoval (that Harfang is a variant of) weighs about the same (1.2 tons) as the Predator and has similar endurance (40 hours). Shoval has a slightly higher ceiling (10 kilometers/30,000 feet, versus 8 kilometers) and software which allows it to automatically take off, carry out a mission, and land automatically. Not all American large UAVs can do this. Both Predator and Shoval cost about the same ($5 million), although the Israelis are willing to be more flexible on price. Shoval does have a larger wingspan (16.5 meters/51 feet) than the Predator (13.2 meters/41 feet) and a payload of about 137 kg (300 pounds). The French version costs about $25 million each (including sensors and development costs).
Israel also developed a larger version of the Heron, the 4.6 ton Heron TP. This is similar to the American RQ-9, but with a lot less combat experience and more expensive. Some Heron TP tech was incorporated into Harfang and France was going to buy some Heron TPs, even though MQ-9s were offered for more than 20 percent less. France analyzed the situation and decided to switch to the RQ-9 because they are seen as more reliable and capable as well as possessing lots of combat experience.
The endurance of 36 hours makes the Heron TP a competitor for the U.S. MQ-9. The big difference between the two is that the 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. Heron TP is meant mainly for reconnaissance and surveillance, and Israel wants to keep a closer, and more persistent, eye on Syria and southern Lebanon. But the Heron TP has since been rigged to carry a wide variety of missiles and smart bombs. But given that the Americans have increased production of the Reaper and are able to handle additional export orders the French, heeding the advice of their European allies (especially Britain) chose the reliable and combat proven Reaper. Moreover the Americans had shown that the Reaper had the range and endurance to reach and monitor terrorist hotspots all over the region from the base in Niger that they share with France. Finally French intelligence had confirmed that while the Islamic terrorists feared the Reaper they took advantage of the fact that the French ones were unarmed and knew that if they spotted a Reaper above (these aircraft are visible from the ground in daylight) the Islamic terrorists could quickly move to a known hiding place and wait for the unarmed Reaper to depart.
The French Reapers will use the same version of the Hellfire (the AGM-114R) the Tiger and most American gunships and armed UAVs used. Introduced in 2010 this version of Hellfire is effective against armored and non-armored targets. The ones fired from UAVs usually are the R model. The Hellfire II weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. The Hellfire has proved to be highly reliable and accurate.
France, Germany, Italy and Spain are cooperating to develop a new UAV to replace Reaper but this won’t be available until the mid-2020s, if then and meanwhile the Reaper is constantly upgraded and continues to set the standard for reliability and capability.