French Air and Space Force engages MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 UAV against terrorists in Africa

On Friday, May 14, 2021, the Reaper block 5, a new Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone operated by the Air and Space Force, took off from the Projected Air Base (BAP) from Niamey (capital city of Niger) for its first operational flight. Its very first mission was to support the soldiers of the Bison Desert Tactical Group (GTD), engaged in a major operation against the Armed Terrorist Groups (GAT) in the Nokara region of Gourma (Burkina Faso).

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French Air and Space Force engages MQ 9 Reaper Block 5 UAV against terrorists in Africa On Friday, May 14, 2021, the Reaper block 5 MALE drone operated by the French Air and Space Force, took off from the Projected Air Base (BAP) from Niamey (capital city of Niger) for its first operational flight. (Picture source: Twitter account of the French armed forces)

The Military Air Expertise Center (CEAM) at Cognac 709 air base had seconded a team to the BAP to carry out experimental flights for this new system. "We carried out the flights in Niger directly to speed up the operational commissioning," explains Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, director of the experimentation campaign. "The goal was for Operation Barkhane's Reaper Squadron to harness these new capabilities as quickly as possible."

This experiment allowed the crews on-site to be "transformed" on the Reaper Block 5 and to discover its new ergonomics and its increased capabilities in support of ground troops. The Reaper block 5 has improved video quality and connectivity, as well as a stronger weapon capacity since it will eventually be able to be equipped with both GBU 49 laser-guided bombs and hellfire missiles. Another development, the maintenance of this new model of drone is exclusively provided by French mechanics.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (sometimes called Predator B) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) primarily for the United States Air Force (USAF). The MQ-9 and other UAVs are referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles/Aircraft (RPV/RPA) by the USAF to indicate their human ground controllers.

The MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. In 2006, the then–Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force General T. Michael Moseley said: "We've moved from using UAVs primarily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles before Operation Iraqi Freedom, to a true hunter-killer role with the Reaper."

The MQ-9 is a larger, heavier, and more capable aircraft than the earlier General Atomics MQ-1 Predator; it can be controlled by the same ground systems used to control MQ-1s. The Reaper has a 950-shaft-horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine (compared to the Predator's 115 hp (86 kW) piston engine). The greater power allows the Reaper to carry 15 times more ordnance payload and cruise at about three times the speed of the MQ-1. The aircraft is monitored and controlled by aircrew in the Ground Control Station (GCS), including weapons employment.

The USAF plans to keep the MQ-9 in service into the 2030s.

The MQ-9 Reaper in French service

On 31 May 2013, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed the order of two MQ-9 Reapers, to be delivered by the end of 2013. It was chosen to replace the EADS Harfang and was picked over the Israeli Heron TP. On 27 June 2013, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale to France for 16 unarmed MQ-9s, associated equipment, ground control hardware, and support, worth up to $1.5 billion total. On 26 August 2013, France and the US Department of Defense concluded the deal for 16 Reapers and 8 ground control stations, with French operators beginning training.

On 24 September 2013, France's first pair of MQ-9 pilots conducted a two-hour training sortie at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. Both French pilots had prior UAV experience and went through a five-week ground-based training course and 5 hours on a flight simulator before the first flight. Two additional crews were also receiving instruction at the facility. General Atomics is due to deliver two Reapers and one ground control station to the French Air Force by the end of 2013. On 26 November 2013, France declared that six pilots in three teams were operational, following 100 hours on flight simulators and 4 flights. French MQ-9s were first put into action in January 2014 at Niamey Air Base in Niger for border reconnaissance in the Sahel desert.

On 16 January 2014, France's first MQ-9 flight occurred from Niger. The first two Reapers to enter French service are designated Block 1 and use U.S. equipment; further orders are to be modified with European payloads such as sensors and data links. On 31 March 2014, French Air Force Reapers accumulated 500 flight hours in support of Operation Serval. In July 2014, a French MQ-9 helped to locate the wreckage of Air Algérie Flight 5017, which had crashed in Mali.

The first operational flight of a French MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 took place on May 14, 2021, from Niamey (Niger) to the Nokara region of Gourma (Burkina Faso).

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