The French Turn to Armed Drones


On Sept. 5, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced the long-awaited decision to arm French surveillance drones. French drones are currently unarmed, used only for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, like the Reapers based in Niamey, Niger. Given that a dozen countries already have armed drones, this decision is surprising only in its delay. Why did it take so long to arm French drones? How did it finally happen? And what are the strategic implications of such a decision? While the French debate on this topic has been influenced by the American precedent, there are ways for France to reap the strategic benefits of armed drones in the Sahel while avoiding the political fallout that the United States has experienced.

Which Drones?

France currently uses unarmed drones of all sizes in both domestic and foreign operations. In her speech, Parly said that the first drone to be affected by the policy will be the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) MQ-9 Reaper operated by the Air Force 1/33 Belfort Drone Squadron. It has six Block 1 models, five of which are in Niamey, deployed for Operation Barkhane in the Sahel-Saharan strip, and one used for training in Cognac, France. A total of 12 are to be delivered by 2019. The remaining drones will be Block 5 models, and it is expected that the Block 1s will be ultimately upgraded to form a homogeneous fleet.

Parly did not specify a time frame, nor did she say what ammunition will be used. The American AGM-114 Hellfire missile is the most likely in the first phase, but MBDA already offered “a European solution”: either the Brimstone or a modified version of the MMP. The armament should be completed by 2019.

The minister announced that the European MALE, currently developed by Dassault, Airbus, and Leonardo, will also be armed. This project is supposed to end Europe’s reliance on Israeli and U.S. drones. The program has been delayed for years, however, and the drone is not expected to fly before 2025.

A third category of French drones that will undoubtedly be armed is the future combat drone. The nEUROn demonstrator made its first flight in 2012. Together with the British Taranis, they are supposed to merge into a Franco-British Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

Why Arm the Reapers?

Part of France’s motivation is to not fall behind. Many countries, including its closest allies, have armed drones or are in the process of acquiring them. For Parly, the widespread global arming of drones “confirms that this is a key capability of tomorrow’s fighting, as was at their time armored vehicles or aircrafts.” She continued: “France cannot pass by, under penalty of being disqualified.”

France also has specific strategic needs for this capability. In the Sahel, French Reapers are “already in the loop since they designate targets and guide the Hellfire missiles of the helicopters and the bombs of the Mirage,” explained the Chief of Staff of the French Air Force. Arming them would be advantageous in at least three ways.

First, it would offer an economy of resources, as armed drones carry out both sensor and effector functions, thereby sparing manned aircraft, highly solicited in external operations (the Sahel, the Middle East, the Baltic states), in France and on overseas military bases. This in no way calls into question the need for manned aircraft, since drones, which have many vulnerabilities (including weather, air superiority, maneuverability, speed, power, and satellite links), can only replace them in very specific situations.

Second, arming drones would improve performance, both in general – an armed drone can cover the entire kill chain (find, fix, track, target, engage, assess)– and in the case at hand. In Operation Barkhane, fewer than 4,000 French soldiers fight terrorist groups, scattered in an extremely vast and hostile area of 5 million square kilometers. Having a chance of success requires both aerial occupation, or persistence in flight – which only drones can offer – and an extreme reactivity when the target appears – which only armed drones can offer. An unarmed drone depends on having an aircraft available to conduct the strike. French Reapers are currently paired with Mirage 2000s based in Niamey and N’Djamena, or Tiger helicopters when, by chance, the area of interest is within their range. The jets often take more than two hours to arrive on location and require refueling, while the tanker fleet is also very solicited. This delay and the lesser discretion of these aircrafts increase the chances of losing the target.

Third, there is a humanitarian argument for arming drones. Indeed, not arming them increases the risk for everyone, soldiers and civilians alike. In a situation similar to the Uzbin Valley ambush in Afghanistan in 2008, which killed 10 French soldiers and wounded 21 others, an unarmed drone would help only to see, not to protect. In Afghanistan, the British quickly realized that their armed drones acted “as a force multiplier and force protector.” Unarmed drones also increase the risk of collateral damage to civilian populations. There have been cases where a vehicle identified in the desert, where it was safe to strike, had moved into a town by the time the aircraft arrived. Additionally, the aircraft is equipped with 500-pound GBU-12 bombs, which are less discriminate than Hellfire missiles, and its endurance does not allow it to wait for a better moment to strike.

Why Now?

The French Air Force has for years been asking to arm drones, and there has been a growing expert consensus in favor of the policy. The timing of the long-awaited decision can be explained by a series of factors.

First, over the long term, the accumulated experience with unarmed drones demonstrated their limits in Afghanistan, Libya, and the Sahel. In a 2011 Senate hearing, for example, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff identified the lack of armed drones as one of the three French shortcomings revealed by the Libya intervention (the other two being aerial refueling and suppression of enemy air defenses). At the same time, the U.K. 39 Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), which has been operating armed Reapers since 2007, showed that it was possible to do so without necessarily adopting the American model of targeted killings outside the context of an armed conflict, and without notable public controversy.

Second, in the medium term, the growing threat of terrorism in France since 2015 has logically made the population more accepting of all methods presented as efficient counterterrorism tools (another example is the 2015 French Intelligence Act).

Third, in the short term, two elements were decisive in accelerating the process in recent months. The first was the publication in May of a report from the Senate recommending the arming of the Reaper. The paper was promoted effectively by Senator Cedric Perrin, one of the co-authors, and received widespread public coverage. Referred to by the minister in her speech, this report was instrumental in convincing the political class of the need to arm drones. The second element was the arrival of a new leadership team, following the presidential elections, which took a fresh look at the issue.

An additional element is prospective: As soon as the decision was taken to develop a French or Franco-British combat drone (nEUROn, FCAS), intended to be operational around 2025, having an armed drone was only a matter of years. Arming the existing surveillance drones only accelerated the inevitable. 

Why Did It Take So Much Time?

Three main factors explain why France did not arm its drones earlier. First and foremost is the coincidence of political prudence and electoral agenda. Like the expert community, the previous Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was personally convinced of the “efficacy” of armed drones. However, he did not want to take the chance of hurting his otherwise excellent track record with a potentially sensitive issue at the end of his term. He therefore left the hot potato to his successor. From that perspective, it took either some political courage to act, or at least a better understanding that the French population was ready. The first-ever opinion poll on arming the French drones was conducted in April, and its results were clear: 74% in favor, 13% against. Moreover, Parly’s announcement has not, as of yet, sparked any notable protestation. The new government should be praised for its foresight.

Second, armament adds another layer to the sovereignty issue. Buying American Reapers was a controversial decision in the first place. The facts that Washington controls their deployment zone (“they cannot be moved without their permission,” acknowledged the Chief of Staff of the French Air Force); that for several years General Atomics contractors conducted takeoff and landing (that is no longer the case); and that the signals intelligence payload France ordered had to be American – all raised significant concerns. The choice of the ammunition, likely the American Hellfire, and the control the United States exerts over U.K. armed drones operations, are additional concerns that caused hesitation within France.

Third, there was discreet resistance from within the armed forces, for at least two reasons. Some were worried that developing a drone capacity would come at the expense of other programs, either because they were in the same budget-constraint envelope (within the air force, which made sure to secure the renovation of the Mirage 2000D by the end of 2015 before supporting the armament of the Reapers, for instance), or because their capacities could overlap (artillery, attack helicopters). However, the small number of Reapers slated to be armed by 2019 – only 12 – put this worry to rest.

Some had deeper reservations. There is a cultural split between two military ethics: the consequentialism of those, often in the air force or the navy, accustomed to fighting remotely – or at least at a farther distance from the enemy – who do not see the drone as a problem; and the virtue ethics of those, often in the army, who value physical courage and are uncomfortable with waging war remotely.

As an example of this second approach, General Benoit Royal, who published a book on military ethics, went to the public radio to defend the idea (known in the just war literature as the principle of reciprocity) that it is illegitimate for drone pilots to kill because they do not themselves risk their lives. Similarly, Major Brice Erbland, an attack helicopter pilot, explained in a French Army review that “the indirect vision (through a screen) of the battlefield can cause a distancing phenomenon from the reality and make the shooter no longer considering the target as a human being”. This is typical of the so-called “PlayStation mentality” and “moral buffer” arguments often heard in the U.S. debate.

This critique should not be left unanswered. To begin with, the absence of risk is neither new nor unique to drones. Human capacity for killing at a distance dates back to the Paleolithic era, and has always been an engine for the evolution of weaponry (javelins, catapults, bows and arrows, cannons, rifles, revolvers, artillery, machine guns, submarines, airplanes, missiles, drones, and computers). The drone operator is not directly threatened by the terrorist he is killing, but neither is the pilot dropping bombs in a permissive environment or the artilleryman firing a launch rocket 70 kilometers from a terrorist position.

Besides, the risk for those who operate drones is never zero, whether psychologically – studies have found that drone pilots experience post-traumatic stress disorder commensurate with manned aircraft pilots – or even physically, since French drones are always operated in situ. Their pilots have been in Bagram, Afghanistan, a base that has been attacked in the past, and today they are in Niamey, which similarly could come under fire. Moreover, those who speak of a nonexistent risk artificially isolate drones from a complex system involving boots on the ground, often special forces.

As for the “moral buffer” argument, there is no proof that the propensity to kill is proportional to distance, as many mass killings of civilians have occurred at close range (My Lai, Rwanda, Bosnia, and so forth). Moreover, drones are not like other distance weapons, because they can see, which changes everything. While increasing the physical distance between opponents, drones reduce the perceptual distance and what I call the “epistemic distance” – that is, what we know about the other. The pilot who spends weeks observing an individual 24/7 is not exactly distant from him when it comes to killing. He knows the target’s family, friends, and habits. In a way, he is closer to him than any combatant on the ground who can make eye contact with his opponent, but knows nothing of his life.

Arming Them To Do What?

The arrival of armed drones raises the interesting question of how France will integrate them into its strategic culture and handle potential political opposition to drone warfare, as the United States has seen.

For years, there has been in France, as elsewhere, a double confusion regarding armed drones. The first, which I call the “Terminator syndrome,” confuses them with lethal autonomous weapon systems. Aware of this risk, Parly reassures: “An armed drone is not a killer robot: these two systems have nothing in common.” Countering the prejudice is easy: It suffices to explain that a drone is piloted and that the decision to strike is always human. Moreover, lethal autonomous weapon systems do not exist yet and the debate that has been going on at the UN is about their preventive ban.

The second confusion is what I call the “Chamayou syndrome,” from the name of critical French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, whose book A Theory of the Drone is a diatribe against the “American Reich.” Chamayou describes American drones as “weapons of state terrorism” and operators as “killers.” Not only is this a highly ideological view, it also confuses the object (the drone) with one of its possible uses (by the CIA for targeted killings). This reductionism is quite widespread. Indeed, the CIA program, which conducted strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, is very much at the origin of the controversy that now surrounds the use of armed drones.

The British only use their armed drones, which are solely operated by the RAF, in situations of armed conflict. The British experience is of mixed relevance for France: On the one hand, it is interesting because they are similar in size (the RAF has 10 armed Reapers) and rules of engagement. On the other hand, there are at least two reasons the U.K. experience is different. First, London made a deliberate choice to put its drone program in American hands, while France wants to preserve as much sovereignty as possible. Second, in the Sahel, France is confronted with more gray zones than in Iraq and Syria, where the existence of an armed conflict is undebatable. The question arises of what to do if a target crosses into a third-party state in which there is no armed conflict.

The British model thus has limited applicability, but there are several reasons to believe Paris will not follow the American model, either. First, capacity: With only 12 Reapers, the French will have no choice but to be more discreet and parsimonious in using them than the Americans, who have hundreds. Second, legal culture: As far as jus ad bellum is concerned, even if the French military interventionism of recent years is impressive, it has never been unilateral. As for jus in bello, France does not share the expansive interpretation of “direct participation in hostilities” that allows Israel and the United States to easily target civilians. That is why the minister insisted that her decision “does not change anything to the rules of engagement, to the respect of the law of armed conflict.” Third, because a captured terrorist is much more useful than a killed one, French special forces give priority to capture.

Moreover, the public-relations problem with American drones is rather linked to the industrial practice of signature strikes. These are strikes against an unidentified individual or group of suspected militants based on a pre-determined set of behaviors, as opposed to targeting clearly identified people (personality strikes). It is indeed quite possible to condemn the abuses of such a permissive policy without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that is, without excluding the possibility, in exceptional circumstances, of targeted killings outside the context of an armed conflict. A country willing to do so could defend a more restrictive approach, limiting targeted killings to personality strikes against high-value targets that pose an immediate and demonstrable threat to national security, and only when the state the target is in does not have the will or the capability to eliminate the threat.

It is also possible to implement the measures needed to satisfy the democratic requirement for transparency and responsibility. This means either communicating the processes and standards of targeting (who decides what, how, and according to what criteria) before a strike or, after a strike has occurred, conveying the identity of the person, and the cause of the strike. What constituted the immediate threat, and why was it not possible to capture the person or neutralize him or her in any other way?

The problem with these measures, obviously, is that they could affect military effectiveness. The more the process and norms are known, the more the adversary can bypass them and restrict our actions. Thus, there is great value in “strategic ambiguity.” But conversely, excessive ambiguity or a lack of information risks arousing suspicion and even hostility with regard to an ill-understood policy, as the United States found out. The British have grasped this and the Birmingham Policy Commission recommended keeping the public informed as much as possible. The challenge, then, is to make available certain information in order to increase transparency and a feeling of legitimacy, without also affecting national interests. Reveal enough to reassure, but not enough to handicap operations.

France finally overcame its ambivalence about arming drones, which is great news as it really is a strategic need. It is too early to tell what exactly will be the French way of using them, but one can already assume it will be a third way, distinct from both the American and British precedents.


Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer (@jeangene_vilmer) is the Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies (IRSEM, French Ministry of the Armed Forces). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of any institution to which he is or was affiliated.