France is apparently not pleased with the performance of its locally developed Harfang UAV and is buying two American RQ-9 Reapers, with the intention getting more and standardizing on this proven UAV design. Currently two Harfang UAVs are present in Mali (operating from neighboring Niger) and some American RQ-9s are helping out as well. France wants the RQ-9s as quickly as possible and apparently this sale is dependent on the U.S. being able to deliver the RQ-9s before the end of the year.
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 based on the Israeli Heron Shoval UAV, which in turn is very similar to the MQ-1 and is 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. Meanwhile, France has bought four Harfang ("Eagle") UAVs and used them in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali over the last four years.
The Shoval 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. Now France plans to switch to the RQ-9 because they are seen as more reliable and capable.
The Heron TP entered squadron service in the Israeli Air Force four years ago. The UAV's first combat service was three years ago, when it was used off the coast of Gaza, keeping an eye on ships seeking to run the blockade. For that kind of work the aircraft was well suited. But so are smaller and cheaper UAVs.
Development of the Heron TP was largely completed six years ago, mainly for the export market, and the Israeli military was in no rush to buy it. There have been some export sales and the Israeli air force eventually realized that this was an ideal UAV for long range operations or for maritime patrol. But it turned out there were few missions like that.
Equipped with a powerful (1,200 horsepower) turboprop engine, the Heron TP can operate at 14,500 meters (45,000 feet). That is above commercial air traffic and all the air-traffic-control regulations that discourage, and often forbid, UAVs fly 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. 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.
The U.S. will not provide Predators or Reapers weapons ready, forcing foreign users to develop their own equipment for arming the UAVs. France also, like other Predator and Reaper users, has to spend a lot of money to develop satellite link technology and set up a ground control facility (or pay to use the American one in the United States or, possibly, the new control center that just opened in Britain).