PARIS — The French Army has started the process of quickly procuring American-made loitering munitions as part of a longer-term effort to field remotely operated weapon systems, according to officials.
The service is looking to add AeroVironment’s Switchblade to its inventory within the next six months, Col. Arnaud Goujon, the Army’s chief of plans, told reporters at the Eurosatory defense expo, which was held last week outside Paris.
In a Tuesday email to Defense News, the French Armed Forces Ministry confirmed the country is in the process of launching a Foreign Military Sales request “for the acquisition of Switchblade remote-operated ammunition.”
“This launch aims to set up a first urgent capacity for the benefit of the French forces,” the ministry wrote.
The Pentagon in April announced plans to supply the Switchblade munition to Ukraine as part of military aid provided to the European country since Russian invaded it in late February.
At Eurosatory, Goujon noted the Army is discussing how best to use such weapons. “Six months from now, we’re going to have a really good discussion” on the path forward, he said.
The service is looking for a capability “that is different” than a mortar or an artillery shell, he said. “If it is the same price of a mortar round that goes about 3 kilometers away and flies for 15 minutes, then it’s interesting.”
But if it’s 10 times more expensive than a mortar and has the same range, Goujon said he is less interested.
However, if the weapon can fly 30 or 50 kilometers (19 or 31 miles) away and has an endurance of two to four hours, “suddenly, I can task it on a recovering mission … then it’s a different animal,” Goujon said.
The use of loitering munitions by both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020 provided many “lessons learned” for how to use such weapons at the operational level, he added.
Neither Goujon nor the ministry commented on how many units the Army plans to acquire, and they would not provide a value of the foreign military sale. French news outlets reported this month that the ministry’s procurement office was looking to acquire 82 remotely operated weapon systems.
The U.S. State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency declined to comment on any potential or pending arms transfers prior to congressional notification.
AeroVironment declined to comment on the potential sale, but a company official said there has been “considerable interest” in the weapon from various militaries since the Defense Department announced plans to send it to Ukraine. The Switchblade 600 is on its way to Ukraine “right now,” Charles Dean, vice president of global business development for unmanned systems, told Defense News at Eurosatory.
He noted that AeroVironment’s loitering munitions have been “out of public view for many years,” despite being used for more than a decade by the U.S. Army. “But with the crisis in Ukraine and the donation by the U.S. government of our loitering munitions to support the Ukrainians, many more people are aware of these systems.”
AeroVironment has provided the rucksack-portable, tube-launched Switchblade 300 loitering munition to the U.S. Army for more than 10 years, and the company introduced the larger 600 variant in 2020. The company also provides a nonlethal variant of the 300 system, dubbed Blackwing.
The French ministry noted in its email that the government is gearing up for “a long-lasting remotely operated ammunition operation,” to launch as early as 2023 via two recently announced projects, Colibri and Larinae (or Hummingbird and Seagull in English, respectively).
Officials at Eurosatory told Defense News that the goal of those projects is to identify a low-cost solution that can target and neutralize an armored vehicle between 5 and 50 kilometers away, with a target demonstration date in 2024.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News’ European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards’ best young defense journalist in 2020.