First French Reapers delivered to Niger


France’s first two of twelve MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been delivered to Niamey, Niger, where they are being used to support the French mission in Mali, but they may also be deployed to the Central African Republic at a later date.

An Antonov An-124 transport aircraft delivered the two UAVs and a ground control station to Niamey, where they are operated by Drone Squadron 1/33 Belfort. Traveling to Niger on January 1, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian inspected the squadron and their new equipment.

The Reapers are complementing the Harfang UAVs that are already operating in various theatres – France has deployed EADS Harfangs to Niger since January 17, 2013, in support of operations in neighbouring Mali and these have logged over 2 000 hours.

Following the Reaper delivery, “France thus reinforces its significant intelligence capabilities in this part of Africa,” the French defence ministry said. “These drones will provide surveillance and control over large areas and intelligence against terrorist formations.”

France has ordered four systems comprising twelve Reaper aircraft, which will make up for the delay in UAV capabilities that France has accumulated in recent years – delivery of the first two MQ-9As was expedited due to urgent need for them for Operation Serval in Mali. The remaining Reapers will only be delivered in 2015 or 2016.

The United States approved the Reaper sale in August last year, followed by acceptance of the aircraft in December 18/19. Six pilots and sensor operators have been trained so far, with training taking place in California, Texas and New Mexico.

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.

France has 2 500 troops deployed in Mali to stabilise the country but this will be reduced to 1 600 in February. French President Francois Hollande earlier this month said that the primary objectives of the mission there have been accomplished but due to ongoing security concerns, France will keep 1 000 troops in the country.

France has also reduced the number of other assets in Mali – last month it withdrew some of its fighters from Mali and redeployed three Mirage 2000Ds and a C-135FR tanker from Bamako to N’Djamena, Chad. Also stationed at N’Djamena are three Rafales and two C-135FRs, which are supporting operations in Chad, Mali and the Central African Republic.