On Sept. 5, France announced it would arm the six Reaper drones that until now it has used almost exclusively for surveillance in counterterrorism operations in Africa’s Sahel region. The announcement marks a logical step in France’s increasing reliance on unmanned drones. But what does it mean for drone policy in France and the United States, and for the norms of drone proliferation?
That France would eventually aim to arm its drones should come as no surprise; France has had an interest in unmanned aircraft technology for years. But the European consortium responsible for pooling member country resources and developing an unmanned combat air vehicle called the Neuron has been slow to come online, hobbled by the tendency for the involvement of more countries to mean more requirements and higher costs. According to various estimates, the European drone industry is about 10 to 15 years behind that of the United States. As one European defense analyst pessimistically put it, “We are losing the capability to build European aircraft.”
In some ways, that prophecy is self-fulfilling. Countries that see a need for drones, such as the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain, have moved to acquire medium-altitude, long-endurance drones from the United States. But once they acquire American Reapers, they have less motivation to develop their own drones.