In 2012 the French arms company Thales convinced the French government to consider purchasing the Watchkeeper drone. As the government of France changed, the incoming government was anxious to rid itself of some of the connections the previous government had had with elements of the French arms industry. So it was inclined to widen its search for drones to include what the French press sometimes calls the Anglo-Israeli Watchkeeper drone.
La Tribune reported that French trials of Watchkeeper in early 2013 didn’t go very well. Other trials occured at l’Istres, presumably at Le Tubé air base, near Marseille. French Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud said that “The results are not yet those we hoped.” Only half of the flights were successful, partly due to bad British weather, and partly due to technical reasons. Yet the French military claimed to be still supportive of Watchkeeper, as the largest European drone programme. La Tribune suggested that France might purchase 15 Watchkeeper systems by 2019. And Thales ramped up its selling pitch by taking Watchkeeper to the Paris Air show, as a model with French army colours.
By November La Tribune was reporting that the head of France’s land army, General Ract-Madoux, was asking for Watchkeeper and wanted to lease two systems even before delivery of purchased systems. He wanted delivery moved forward to 2016-17 rather than 2019. Ract-Madoux said ” The drone flies and lands perfectly. However , the links between the UAV and the ground have a problem ” Ract-Madoux felt the system hadn’t reached ‘maturity’ and urged Thales to solve the problems.
Included in Anglo French cooperation was the testing of a new Thales high speed data link as an alternative to the existing data link. The TMA data link might also be used on Reaper or Heron drones being used in the French or British air forces. It isn’t clear whether this related to previous concerns with Watchkeeper data links.
The CEO of Thales, Jean-Bernard Levy tried to sell the idea of France buying Watchkeeper, on the basis of it’s being what France wanted, cheap, having a European supply chain, and would be under exclusive control of French forces.
TTU Online has reported that on 18 November 2013 four members of the French 61 Artillery Regiment will join a team from 43 battery of the British 47 Regiment on Salisbury Plain as the latter tries to ‘ramp up’ the struggling Watchkeeper program. . The purpose was to more closely integrate the two armies in their ability to operate drones (and presumably further the assessment of the Watchkeeper drone for the French).
Ract-Madoux suggested that French officers and NCO’s should go to Afghanistan in early 2014 when the British Watchkeepers would presumably be sent there, “to test the behaviour of the device in a theatre of operations.” But according to TTU Online, British officials ‘did not envisage’ French participation in British operations in Afghanistan and offered them the chance to jointly test Watchkeeper in Canada instead.
Writing in L’Enterprises, Vincent Lamigeon speculated that many French politicians would support a competing bid from Saran, the ‘Patroller’ a larger drone made almost entirely in France. He suggested that Senators might demand an open bidding process and that political campaigning had earlier resulted in France acquiring American Reaper drones, rather than the Heron drones offered by Israeli Aerospace Industries and Dassault.