|France's Reaper Flee
While it waits for the MQ-9 Reapers' armaments capacity and the unmanned aerial systems in Block 5, the French air force is continuing to boost its unit tasked with maintenance. The aeronautical technical support squadron (ESTA) will be created in 2020 and fully integrated into the 33rd surveillance, reconnaissance and attack squadron - which itself will be operational from this summer.
There are currently nearly a hundred mechanics, either based at Cognac or deployed on overseas operations. They are divided into five specialities: vector, avionics, ground electronics specialists, controls and armourers. The ground electronics specialists have "quite specific" functions, since in time they will be taking charge of the whole cockpit and the antennae, as lieutenant-colonel Romain, the commander of the 1/33 Belfort squadron which implements the drones, explains. "At the moment, they are only working on the French intelligence cockpit", he specifies. As for the armourers "they are preparing for the arrival of the strike capability".
Two of the four categories are deployed at Niamey, in Niger: the control mechanics and the ground electronics specialists "who restart the intelligence cockpit". As for the other categories, some of them are "on a familiarisation course in the United States to start building up knowledge on Block 5".
The arrival of the two unmanned aerial systems at Block 5, which is scheduled for the end of 2019 and during 2020, will be accompanied by two years of "mentoring" with the General Atomics teams. "But nothing but taking them out of the cases, fitting the wings, etc." will be carried out by the French teams, coached by the Americans.
While the objective is to be able to take training completely in-house, for now it will continue to be provided in the United States. "We need a little experience to start preparing our training", specifies lieutenant-colonel Romain He also explains that "the content of the training course is interesting, but they don't have the same scope as us and don't implement the same things just for specific French requirements. What's more, it's a familiarisation course with very little practical content". The next one is scheduled for 2022: "When we reach the mid-way point in the two-year mentoring process we'll decide whether it's worth it and from when we can create our own independent training" .