The French military has taken delivery of another two MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from General Atomics, out of a total order for 12, and deployed them to Niger.
The aircraft arrived in Niamey, Niger, at the end of 2016, bringing the French fleet to five aircraft. A sixth aircraft is expected to be delivered to France in mid-January and will be deployed there in support of French national security. It is planned to fly during the Parish Air Show in June after receiving French civil aviation authority certification.
The first six Reapers for France are the Block I version, while the last six will be the more advanced Block 5 version, which feature the ability to carry electronic intelligence payloads, amongst others. Two Block I aircraft will be upgraded to Block 5 standard, allowing them to fly in European airspace.
French personnel deployed at Base Aerienne 101 in Niamey are due to soon completely take over Reaper flights from the American crews who have been training them. Escadron de Drone 1/33 Belfort has been operating three Reapers since January 2014. These MQ-9s have accumulated more than 12 000 flight hours.
Belfort was originally deployed as part of Operation Serval in Mali, which then morphed into Operation Barkhane in August 2014. Reapers began flying from Mali in January 2014, alongside two Harfang UAVs. The Harfangs first deployed to Africa in January 2013 but the aircraft were apparently transferred to France in September and are based in Cognac.
Although the General Atomics MQ-9 can be armed, France has chosen not to arm its aircraft and is instead using its optical and radar sensors to detect targets of interest across the Sahel and Sahara.