EADS’ “Harfang”/ EAGLE/ SIDM (Systeme Interimaire de Drone MALE) UAV system was developed in conjunction with Israel Aerospace Industries, based on the Heron. It’s serving as an interim solution for France’s Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAV needs, and has been active in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali. Where basing allows, it complements shorter range options like the Sperwer. In situations like Libya, where bases are more distant, it becomes France’s only deployable UAV.
France has a number of advanced UAV programs in development at the medium, heavy, and UCAV levels. A 2009 test of the jet-powered Barracuda UAV demonstrator in Canada, and development of the nEUROn UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) underscores the seriousness of those efforts, but they aren’t realistic fielding options in the near term. Until a replacement is developed and fielded, the small Harfang fleet plays a very important role for the French military…
Operating the Harfang
Operating the Harfang requires more than just a pilot, who guides the UAV into position for automatic takeoffs, and controls it in the air.
The ground component is composed of 3 stations: a ground station for mission planning, a flight operations station to control the UAVs and receive video via the satellite datalink, and an intelligence station for interpretation and dissemination that’s run by an intelligence officer.
Experience in Afghanistan indicates that up to 9 people can be responsible for directly managing a mission, working in shifts over periods lasting up to 20-24 hours: 4 pilots, 2 intelligence officers, 2 photo analysts, and an “exploitant” who collates this information with other data from the Afghan theater.
Behind them stand 15 technicians of all trades conduct maintenance, and run pre-mission checks including establishing the satellite datalinks, inspections, and pre-flight equipment tests.
Contracts and Key Events
2010 – 2020
Maintenance problems; Service over Libya and Mali; Extension proposed.
February 5/20: Morocco! France’s Intelligence Online has reported that three EADS Harfang Unmanned Air Vehicles previously operated by the French Air Force have been transferred to Morocco. The transfer reportedly took place on January 26. The sale was worth around $48 million. The Israeli drones, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries, were transferred to Morocco via French defense company Dassault, The report said that an agreement on the deal was made between Israel and Morocco as far back as 2013, with the drones delivered in recent weeks. The drones are to be used to monitor terror groups in the southern part of the country and the Western Sahara area.The report said Morocco bought the drones after they were decommissioned from the French military, which used them for surveillance operations in Afghanistan.
Jan 20/14: Morocco? Take it with a grain of salt, but there are reports that Dassault may have acted as a conduit for an export order to Morocco, which has growing border surveillance needs in the wake of recent regional instability:
“It has been confirmed by French sources that the RMAF has purchased from France at least three medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles,” the website farmorocco reported. The website, which reports on the Moroccan military, said the UAVs were supplied by France’s Dassault Aviation in April 2013…. Farmorocco posted a document that cited the assets of the Moroccan Air Force in 2013. The document listed three Heron as well as four U.S.-origin Predator XP platforms.”
Sources: Defense Update, “Israeli Herons Supplied through France end up in Morocco” | World Tribune, “Morocco said to buy Israeli-designed drones from France”.
Dec 19/13: MQ-9. The DGA procurement agency receives its 1st Reaper UAV, which is being readied for deployment to Mali along with a 2nd UAV, associated ground systems, etc. The DGA praises the USA’s help in getting personnel trained, helping with communications planning, etc. A record of six months from order to delivery is impressive, and demands nothing less. By New Year’s Day, they’re in Mali. Sources: DGA.
Sept 5/13: Mali. The French Air Force’s 1/33 Belfort UAV Squadron have logged 2,000 flight hours over Mali. Sources: Shephard’s UV Online, “French Harfang UAV logs 2,000 flight hours in Mali”.
May 31/13: Dwindling fleet. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian writes an article for Les Echos, stating his commitment to buy 2 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs from the USA, for delivery before the end of 2013. After so much procrastination, with only 2 Harfang drones operational, and with pressing commitments in Mali and elsewhere, he says that France must take the immediately available choice. Defense Aerospace suggests that the French Air Force finally got their way, after stalling other options.
Ultimately, Le Drian argues for a European partnership that will share expertise and develop a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV like the Reaper. The Italians must be happy to hear that, and Le Drian seems to be referring to their discussions when he says “Cette ambition est d’ores et deja en chantier” (loose trans. “we’re already working on it”). The question in Europe is always whether talk will lead to action, so we’ll wait until we see a contract. Les Echos | Defense-Aerospace.
Feb 12/13: Extension proposed. EADS and IAI submit a proposal to extend the Harfang support program past October 2013 to 2017, and upgrade the UAVs’ sensors.
Operation Serval in Mali has reportedly spurred more interest in armed UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper, though options like the EMB-314 Super Tucano would offer similar counterinsurgency benefits from a familiar air force vendor. No matter what happens, some kind of Harfang extension is probably inevitable. The process of buying and fielding an option like the USA’s Reaper is likely to take another 2 years, and even a more conventional buy of counter-insurgency turboprops can’t be ready by October. Defense News.
“It was under the eye of the Harfang that the cities of Douentza and Gao were taken over from Islamist militants. They were also overhead when French paratroops landed in Timbuktu.”
Feb 27/12: Afghan End. The French air force has ended its Heron unmanned aircraft operations in Afghanistan, after more than 660 missions and over 5,000 flights from Bagram AB. Sources: Aviation Week, “French Harfang UAV Checks Out of Afghanistan”.
Aug 25/11: Over Libya. The French defence ministry has confirmed using Harfang UAVs over Libya, from NAS Sigonella in Sicily. Flight International.
Oct 5/10: In testimony before the French National Assembly’s defense committee, minister Hervé Morin says that lack of swift Israeli cooperation on spares has been a problem for France:
“Dans le domaine des drones, la France a pris du retard, manquant cette évolution technologique… L’armée de l’air a peut-être été également circonspecte sur la perspective d’avions sans pilote… Le SDTI fonctionne tout comme le drone MALE intérimaire, le SIDM Harfang, qui est aujourd’hui déployé en Afghanistan. Nous avons encore du retard par rapport aux drones existants, que ce soit par rapport aux drones américains comme le Predator ou aux drones israéliens, qui constituent la base du SIDM. Nous rencontrons d’ailleurs quelques problèmes de réparation sur ce matériel, les Israéliens n’étant pas toujours très coopératifs en la matière. J’ajoute que le SIDM ne résout pas durablement notre problème puisqu’il est prévu qu’il s’arrête en 2014. Nous avons pourtant besoin de ces appareils : dans l’affaire des otages, ils auraient été précieux.”
March 8/10: ROVER. France announces that it has begun operations with the American ROVER remote video terminal feed system, in conjunction with its Harfang UAVs. The system allows troops to receive the video from the unmanned aircraft in real time. Aviation Week | DID ROVER coverage.
2009 and Earlier
From rollout to deployment; Harfang to Afghanistan.
Dec 31/09: France’s DGA procurement agency places a EUR 33.7 million (about $49 million) order with EADS for a 4th “Harfang”/SIDM UAV, and a 3rd ground control station. The award is made as an urgent operational requirement, issued by the French defense staff on July 3/09.
The new equipment is slated for delivery in the summer of 2010 to the Adour squadron, based in Cognac (Charente). It will be used to train SIDM operators, with a secondary security role at major national events such as large sporting events, disaster relief, etc. DGA [in French] | Shephard Group.
Oct 10/09: Reports surface in the French media that France is considering an urgent purchase of 2 MQ-9 Reaper systems (4 MQ-9s, 2 ground stations) for use in Afghanistan at a cost of up to $100 million, because 2 of its 3 deployed EADS SIDM/ Harfang UAVs are grounded for repairs, and have had issues with human error and contractor support [in French].
Assuming that France does not wish to lease a UAV service as the Australians, British, Canadians, and Dutch have done, the MQ-9 offers commonality with the American, British, and Italian contingents in theater, as well as a UAV with strong weapons options that set it apart from the rest. A wild card in this situation is France’s reputation for pervasive industrial espionage, even during combat operations. With a number of advanced French-led UAV programs in development, it would certainly be possible to make very good use of full access to America’s most advanced serving UAV. Reuters || In French: Le Point | France-Soir | LCI.
Sept 24/09: 1,000 hours. France’s fleet of 3 Harfang UAVs pass the milestone of 1,000 flight hour in Afghanistan. Source.
Feb 17/09: C2 save. Vertical integration saves the day. The French Air Force’s SIDM UAV performs its maiden flight in Afghanistan, thanks to quick satellite bandwidth work by EADS Astrium. These UAVs requires 2 civil Ku-band satellite links: a low data rate link for ground station control, and a high data rate link for collected data (video, photos) during the flight. Unfortunately:
“…the extremely high demand for satellite communications capabilities from numerous defence ministries and the international media has exhausted capacity in Afghanistan. By analysing its portfolio of contracts with major international operators, Astrium Services was able to identify the only compatible satellite solution accessible in this region. Astrium then arranged with an operator for one of its satellites to be repositioned…”
EADS Astrium is providing the civil Ku-band satellite telecommunications, satellite link engineering, and a dedicated 24-hour support hotline. EADS.
January 2009: SIDM is officially taken over by the French Air force from EADS’ DS Military Air Systems division, and will be deployed to Afghanistan. EADS DS will provide logistics support for the Bagram AB deployment with an ancillary base on constant alert, and with voluntary personnel in the area. to date, The French Air Force has accumulated some 200 flight hours whilst training their SIDM operators and ground staff at Mont-de-Marsan Air Base.
Nicolas Chamussy, Senior Vice President for Mission Air Systems in the DS business unit MAS, is quoted in an EADS release:
“SIDM is an autonomous system with an almost around-the-clock endurance, a range of approximately 1,000 kilometres and a very effective sensor suite consisting of electro-optical and infrared, laser designator and an synthetic-aperture imaging radar with ground moving target indicator… This powerful mission equipment, in combination with real-time, secure line-of-sight and satellite data transmission, will dramatically increase the protection of French and ISAF units against ground threats.” “SIDM and the experience gained from this system will pave the way for the French-German-Spanish Advanced UAV [Talarion]…”
Armee de l’Air takes Harfang to Afghanistan
June 5/08: EADS announces that the SIDM system has successfully completed its flight acceptance operations at Air Base 118, Mont-de-Marsan. The SIDM performance validation trials were conducted by the missile and UAV management unit (UM MID) of the French armaments directorate DGA, assisted by the Flight Test Centres (CEV) of Istres and Cazaux with participation from the electronic Centre of Armament (CELAR) at Bruz.
Oct 2-4/07: The Harfang interim MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV system is formally unveiled during a joint presentation of French Army and Air Force weapons and systems at Reims air base. Source.
Sept 11/06: First flight in France. EADS, in association with Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI), announces that it has successfully completed the first flight of a MALE UAV System in France from the DGA’s Istres air base test center. The UAV flew with its full communication package, including satellite communication and line-of-sight data links.
* Airbus Defence & Space – Harfang – Unmanned Aerial System UAS
* Defense-Update: “Harfang”/ EAGLE/ SIDM
* French Air Force (Sept 8/10) – Harfang : un atout indéniable pour l’armée de l’air