France arming Operation Barkhane Reaper UAVs


France is arming its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with Paveway guided bombs for Operation Barkhane operations in Africa.

The Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace (French Air and Space Force) will this month put GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs into service on three of its Block 5 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs deployed to Niger in support of Operation Barkhane, Shephard Media reports.

The 33rd Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Attack Wing (SRAW) operates 12 Reapers. Six are Block 1 aircraft (one of which has been leased since 2020 to make up for the loss of another Block 1 in 2018 to a crash shortly before landing) and the other six are Block 5s. The first Block 5 system was delivered in January 2020.

France is in the process of acquiring another six Block 5 UAVs, which will be armed with GBU-12s and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and will also be equipped with an FMS pod for intelligence gathering, Jane’s reports.

The French Reaper acquisition is to address the need for a sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in Africa.

France last month deployed a Reaper for maritime surveillance tasks as part of the European operation EU Navfor Med Irini, whose mission is to enforce the arms embargo in Libya.

French Reapers arrived in the Sahel-Saharan theatre in December 2013 and began flying from Mali in January 2014, gathering intelligence in support of the Barkhane Force. Complementary to other air assets, the aircraft provide aerial overwatch for periods of up to nearly 24 hours.

France initially chose to keep its Reapers unarmed, using its optical and radar sensors to detect targets of interest across the Sahel and Sahara. However, in December 2019 it carried out several test firings in Niger, with four evaluation drops carried out using GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. One of the air strikes killed seven jihadists in central Mali.

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said Operation Barkhane, France’s operation battling Islamist militants in the Sahel region of West Africa, would come to an end with troops now operating as part of broader international efforts in the region.

Paris has grown frustrated with no apparent end in sight to its operations and political turmoil especially in Mali. “The time has come to begin a deep transformation of our military presence in the Sahel,” Macron told a news conference, referring to the Barkhane operation, which has some 5 100 soldiers across the region. The decision came days after Malian army Colonel Assimi Goita took power in a coup.

Some 55 French soldiers have died in the region since Paris intervened in 2013 to drive back al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized cities and towns in northern Mali a year earlier.

Macron said several hundred French special forces would work alongside other European countries in the Takuba Task Force fighting militants in the Sahel alongside the Malian and Nigerian armies.

More countries would be asked to contribute forces to that alliance, including the United States, which until now has only provided logistical and intelligence support in the Sahel, he said.

Other French forces would work as part of training operations and as part of international missions already operating in the region.

On 2 July, French defence minister Florence Parly said Operation Barkhane will be replaced by a new mission, one that will focus on fighting terrorism and supporting local forces. But “this transformation does not mean that we will be leaving the Sahel or that we will slow down our counter-terrorism operations” in the region.

Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.