09 December 2019

France Re-Establishes its Aerial Research Squadron

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

On September 5, 2019, France officially established the 33rd Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Assault Squadron (ESRA) within the 709th Air Forces Base in Cognac. Adding the letter A to the squadron’s acronym shows the change of doctrine on using unmanned aircrafts.

Image source: Mediafax

A first for France: the first air unit exclusively equipped with unmanned aircraft

Clearly, France is making a large step in the field of aerial research and the use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones. Thursday, September 5, 2019, the French Air Forces held the official ceremony which established the 33rd Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Assault Squadron, or “ESRA”.

The squadron took over the fighting traditions of the previous 33rd Air Research Squadron, created in 1933, dissolved in 1939 and reactivated in 1945, then again dissolved in 1993, after the end of the Cold War.

The missions, organization and equipment of the 33rd “ESRA” Squadron

The new air unit’s main mission is to carry out specific information gathering missions. The permanent deployment base is situated at the 709th Air Base Cognac in New Aquitaine.

Alongside the main information gathering mission, “ESRA” will also be capable in the near future of carrying out air support and ground attack missions. For this reason, the “A” in the acronym” was added when it was established. This change indicates the evolution of France’s security strategy and the doctrine to use unmanned aircraft. If, until 2015, the use of drones was not viewed as positively as it is in the US or the United Kingdom, the realities of recent conflicts determined this change to take place within the French Air Forces.

Currently, the 33rd “ESRA” Squadron is formed out of two sub-units: 1/33 Belfort (ED) which represents the operational part and the 3/33 Moselle operational transformation sub-unit (ETOD).

The main mission of subunit 1/33ED is to carry out information gathering missions in operations outside French national territory, while it will also be used to protect France’s air space. The 3/33 ETOD will be used to form and train flight crews.

The 1/33 Belfort subunit currently has an MQ-9 Reaper MALE (medium altitude long endurance) system, with five unmanned aircrafts, out of which three are currently deployed within the Barkhane Operation in Niger and the Sahel area, while the other two are used to instruct and train personnel at the Cognac air base. The sixth aircraft was lost in November 2018, during a mission carried out in the Sahel area. Aircrafts which are currently being exploited have already reached more than 30,000 flight hourse since they were entered into service in 2014. France will receive, until the end of 2019, six MQ-9 Reaper MALE aircrafts, complete with weapons systems, and eight more of the same type by the end of 2020.

The 1/33 sub-unit is commanded by Lt. Col. Romain and has 20 flight crews. According to Romain, the objective is to recruit and instruct more than 100 drone crews until 2023. A crew is formed out of a “pilot”, an image systems operator, an image analyst and an intelligence officer. In the case of weaponized drones, the crew is formed out of five servicemen. “Alongside the crews, we also need maintenance personnel. Approximately 800 servicemen in total,” added Lt. Col. Romain. Of these, two thirds will be recruited from among civilians, and one third will be recruited from air force personnel.

The organization and equipment of the ESRA squadron will be changed in the following years, after a technical assistance subunit (ESTA) will be established in 2020, with the reactivation of the 2/33 Savoie sub-unit (dissolved in 2014, after the withdrawal of the Mirage F1 aircrafts from active air force service). Until 2023, sub-unit 2.33 will receive eight Beech King Air 350 light surveillance and recon aircrafts (ALSR), if the 2019-2025 military endowment program will be respected.

New missions, assumed controversies

On September 9, 2019, French Defence Minister Florence Parly announced that, for the first time, France will equip currently exclusive surveillance and information gathering UAV’s with weaponry. Therefore, France will join nations which use drones for attacks and are support, such as the US, the UK, Germany, Italy and ten other countries. Florence Parly also stated that the decision will initially apply only to the first aircrafts purchased by France from the US, most them deployed in the Sahel region in Africa, where French troops are involved in the fight against Islamist militants.

In these conditions, it should be expected that MQ-9 Reaper aircrafts receive until the end of the year the necessary munition to execute ground attack missions, and a team of US instructors will be present in France in order to instruct and train operators and technical crews. At first, MQ-9 Reaper drones will be equipped with 250 kg GBU-12 laser-guided missiles. Later, the weaponry will be completed by another laser-guided missile, but with a lower explosive load. This attack capacity will be available after the first MQ-9 Reaper Block 5 system will arrive, estimated towards the end of 2019, with the system to be directly “armed” at receipt.

Regarding this subject, in a speech held in Toulon, Florence Parly specified that equipping UAV’s with munitions will offer French servicemen “resistance, discretion, information and strike capabilities at the right place and the right time”.

The subject of drone attacks is pretty sensible in France, as some experts have expressed their concerns with possible errors which can be committed by the “pilots” who operate a long distance from the area of action and, implicitly, from the targeted objective. In the same context, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and other specialists who are involved in robotics and artificial intelligence have recently launched a debate on this subject, appealing for a ban on autonomous weapons.

Translated by Ionut Preda