French purchase of Heron TP may not be a done deal

In July, 2011 the French military announced that it was to become the first purchaser of the new Heron TP, the very large drone produced by Israeli arms manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries, which is a partner with French arms company Dassault Aviation.

The Heron TP would replace the Harfang drone (itself based on a smaller Heron drone).

A variety of reasons were given for the French choosing the Israeli drone over alternatives, including the suggestion (denied) that the makers of the US Predator weren’t interested in bidding, and the wish to be able to operate independently of France’s American allies.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet was reported in Defence Industry Daily as saying:

“We could have found a cheaper, more efficient, quicker solution, but at the [unacceptable] price of long-term dependence. No proposition was made by Reaper, which did not want to share, nor to adapt to French standards…”

French officials said that they expected to complete negotiations for the deal by the end of 2012.

In early 2012 the French Senate released an audit report sharply critical of the selection of the Heron TP, over the similarly sized Predator B drone produced in the United States by General Atomics. According to the report the Heron TP is more expensive, has reduced performance, and has smaller payloads than its Predator B competitor. Furthermore the Predator B has been flown for many more hours than the newly developed Heron TP (one thousand times more hours, to date), and therefore should be more reliable.

The report was also skeptical of IAI’s ability to support the operations of the Heron on combat fronts, calling maintenance support from the company ‘inefficient’. The report noted that a smaller Heron drone damaged in Afghanistan was still in the possession of IAI in Israel 18 months later.

France’s influential Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement have launched a major campaign to stop the purchase. Small protests against the deal have proliferated around France.

Critics of the purchase must have felt justified this week when a Heron TP being test flown in Israel crashed to the ground after losing a wing.

One wonders whether the internal resistance to the Heron TP purchase, and the changes brought on by the upcoming French election, might yet scuttle the deal to buy the Israeli drone.

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