French UAVs exceed 15 000 flight hours in the Sahel


French unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) deployed in the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane have accumulated more than 15 000 flight hours.

The French Air Force said that since the deployment of UAV squadron 1/33 ‘Belfort’ to Niamey in Niger, the unit’s UAVs had flown over 15 000 flight hours by March this year. At the moment the unit is equipped with two Harfangs and three MQ-9 Reaper UAVs.

Belfort was originally deployed as part of Operation Serval in Mali, which then morphed into Operation Barkhane in August 2014.

The French Air Force said that over a thousand intelligence missions to support operations were carried out by the UAVs, which provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to French forces.

France received its first Reaper system (comprising three air vehicles) in December 2013, and in December last year ordered a third system. The second system is due for delivery this year and the third in 2019.

The MQ-9 Reaper arrived in the Sahel-Saharan theatre in December 2013. Complementary to other air assets, the aircraft provides aerial overwatch for periods of up to nearly 24 hours. The Reapers began flying from Mali in January 2014 and had accumulated 2 000 hours by the end of October that year.

Although the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper can be armed, France has chosen not to do so and is instead using its optical and radar sensors to detect targets of interest across the Sahel and Sahara.

Operation Barkhane, launched in August 2014, includes 3 000 troops whose mission, in partnership with the countries of the Sahel G5, is to combat armed terrorist groups in the Sahel-Sahara region. France has also deployed some twenty helicopters, 200 logistics vehicles, 200 armoured vehicles, half a dozen fighter aircraft and ten transport aircraft to Africa for operations in countries like Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.

The French Ministry of Defence (MoD), in an update dated 3 March, noted that the security situation in the Sahel is stable, although it remains fragile in Mali, due to actions carried out by armed terrorist groups against Malian State representatives and, in the North, against the UN mission there (MINUSMA).
“Countering these threats…MINUSMA and Barkhane forces are pursuing operations aimed at hindering the armed terrorist groups,” the French MoD said. For instance, between 23 and 29 February, the Barkhane force and the Niger armed forces conducted an area control operation in the region around Emi Fezzane, the mountain east of Madama in northeast Niger. Over 150 soldiers were deployed.

The French MoD also noted that since the return of two Mirage 2000Cs to France on 27 February, there are no longer any fighter jets based at Niamey. Deployed to Niger since May 2014, the Mirage 2000 fighter detachment provided support for Operation Serval before supporting operations conducted in Mali and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane.
“Deployed round the clock, the fighter crews carried out missions to maintain pressure on the armed terrorist groups: demonstrations of force at low altitude and high speed, destroying arms caches, fire support, and gathering intelligence,” the French MoD said. “The Mirage 2000s carried out a total of nearly 800 missions as part of the Barkhane operation, i.e. over 2,800 hours in the air. They fired around 72 munitions.”