Ukrainians train with handheld drones. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

EUROSATORY 2024 – Sebastien Lecornu, France’s minister for the armed forces, today signed a “UAV pact” designed to not only keep ideas flowing between the armed forces and the French drone industry but also to develop a strategic unmanned capacity in the under-150 kilogram category.

It’s the first time such an industrial pact has been signed between the French defense sector and the French government’s DGA, the procurement agency.

General Erwan Salmon of the DGA, who will be managing the UAV pact, said that “this is a rare initiative which will allow for standardization and normalization and allow us to produce drones massively and faster.”

The idea behind the pact is that, until the war in Ukraine at least, the small UAV industry was heavily biased towards civilian uses, and the national military market was not important enough to impact developments.

“The armed forces ministry is therefore going to accompany the structuration and development of a national sector which is currently highly fragmented (a large number of isolated and essentially small actors),” according to an armed forces ministry statement.

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Salmon explained that Ukraine had shown that “drones can be game-changers” and the pact should provide financing so that French companies can develop “sovereign [technology] bricks. It should also help provide the monies to allow us to buy UAVs off-the-shelf and test them,” he told a packed conference zone here at Eurosatory in Paris.

The “bricks” in question correspond to specific military needs such as data links, payloads, resistance to jamming, cyber, military payloads and autopilot.

“Our procurement strategies need to change,” Salmon said, remarking that “we need to acquire rapidly, at the same speed at which UAVs are developed.”

Col. Herve Mermod of the armed forces general staff explained that one priority was to develop modular payloads able to take images, gather electromagnetic intelligence and be used as weapons.

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In addition the French military’s own interest, the ministry noted that supplying the Ukrainian armed forces “is a factor of acceleration to structure our national industry for two things: first through the volume of orders and then thanks to the competitive advantage on the export market that will be acquired by actors whose products have been used and validated by the Ukrainian forces.”

Bastien Mancini, the co- founder and CEO of drone-maker Delair, pointed out that several French small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) have been delivering UAV systems to Ukraine including companies like Parrot, Hexadrone, and his own Delair “and this materiel has performed satisfactorily.”

But he explained that it costs between € 5 million to €10 million ($5.5 million to $10.8 million) to develop a competitive drone and that production can rack up to 10,000 UAVs a year. “We must be able organize industrially” in order to be able to produce these quantities “and as it’s strategic, we need help.”

He specified that the best help SMEs like his could hope for “is to get public orders for our off-the-shelf systems” and to “shorten the contract lead-times.”

The French move reflects a global growing interest in small drones, as well as a push by governments, including the US, to reform its acquisition to better suit the fast-evolving tech.