France currently has five unarmed drones in service: three MQ-9 Reapers and two French EADS Harfang drones (modified Heron drones). The Reaper drones were first deployed during Operation Serval, a mission launched to assist the Malian government in its efforts to fight insurgents.

The Reapers were again deployed in the subsequent Operation Barkhane (2014), which covered the Sahel region in Northern Africa. Impressed with the Reapers’ performance, France is committed to acquire nine additional Reapers by 2019. On the 5th of September 2017, French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, announced the decision to arm French surveillance drones, beginning with the Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) MQ-9 Reapers operated by the Air Force 1/33 Belfort Drone Squadron. However, the French Ministry of Defense has not taken a legal position on how to use the armed drones. Notably, there has been little public opposition against armed drone operations by France, while there should be a strong concern about how the armed drones will be used.

Besides acquiring, arming and deploying its drone fleet, France is also actively collaborating with other EU member states, within the ‘Drones Users Club’ and the ‘Joint Users Club’ of MQ-9 Reapers. In addition, France is collaborating with Germany and Italy to develop a European Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance drone to decrease its dependence on the United States and Israel as drone producers. Furthermore, French Aerospace manufacturer Dassault has taken the lead in developing the nEUROn (an experimental combat drone) which has joined together with British BAE Systems on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project. Additionally, in July 2017, France and Germany announced their agreement to ‘jointly develop a future combat air system’.

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On the 5th of September 2017, French Minister of Defense, Florance Parly, announced that France has decided to arm its surveillance drones in West Africa as part of counter-terrorism operations against suspected Islamists militants. No timeframe was given for the arming of these nor was it clear what framework would guide their use. Despite Parly’s mention that “The drones wouldn’t become “killer robots,” … stressing that strikes would be governed by strict national and international rules relating to the use of force”, EFAD stresses the need to articulate clear policies and legal frameworks for using armed drones in this or any other manner.

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