Will the Aarok drone be the French alternative to the MQ-9 Reaper?


The French Air and Space Force seems open to funding a study of the Aarok drone, designed by the French manufacturer Turgis & Gaillard. Ukraine has also shown interest, with Antonov reportedly signing a contract to produce its own version of the drone under license. 

Turgis & Gaillard started the development of the Aarok in 2020. In June 2023, the drone was unveiled to the public, with the first prototype presented during the Paris Air Show 2023 in Le Bourget. 

The Aarok is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned combat aerial vehicle, with a 22-meter wingspan, 14 meters in length, and a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 5.5 tons, including a 1.5-ton payload. It can stay airborne for over 24 hours and be operated through a satellite communications datalink. 

It features six hardpoints under its wings and is marketed to conduct multiple missions such as ground strikes, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), and even maritime surveillance. 

The Aarok armed drone at the Paris Air Show 2023 (Credit: AeroTime)

A French alternative to the Reaper? 

As such, the Aarok is similar in size, performance, and application to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper, also in service with the French Air and Space Force. It is also lighter and would likely be cheaper than the European MALE, also known as the Eurodrone. 

Launched in 2015, the European Remotely Piloted Aircraft System drone project brought together France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Airbus is the development leader, with French Dassault Aviation and Italy’s Leonardo as partners. The Eurodrone aims to carry 2.3 tons of payload, with a MTOW of around 11 tons. 

Germany was expecting its first Eurodrone by 2027, and France a year later. However, the program was stalled following disagreements about the price of the drone, with some concerned that a MALE drone could hardly enter today’s market if it was more expensive than its competitors, especially the US-built General Atomics Reaper drone. 

Turgis & Gaillard plans to have the Aarok ready to enter service by 2025, with the first flight expected by the end of the fall of 2023. 

Though it might not fully replace the Eurodrone, the Aarok could offer France a scalable, local alternative to the 12 Reapers that it currently operates. The French Air and Space Force is seemingly open to seeing the Direction générale de l’armement (DGA, the French procurement and technology agency) conduct a study of its potential applications. 

“On Turgis & Gaillard, as I said at the Bourget Air Show, I find the initiative quite interesting: self-funded development, an object that is quite appealing on paper. […] I think it raises questions in the defense industry,” said General Stéphane Mille, Chief of Staff of the Air & Space Force, during a hearing at the National Assembly on October 5, 2023. “So, I’m ready to pay to see, assuming I have the resources […] because there is sometimes a gap between what is announced and what can actually be delivered in the end.” 

Turgis & Gaillard has already entered discussions with the DGA, which sees the Aarok as complementary to the Eurodrone.

“We will build the Eurodrone, in any case, because we need it to maintain our overseas surveillance capabilities,” Emmanuel Chiva, head of the DGA, told L’Hémicycle. “The Eurodrone is one thing, having a 100% French [unmanned] aircraft also interests us a lot. So why not do both?”

The Aarok in the skies of Ukraine? 

While the service entry of the Aarok in France could take some time, it might soon become battle-proven. 

Turgis & Gaillard and the Ukrainian plane maker Antonov Company reportedly reached an agreement to manufacture a local version of the Aarok unmanned aerial vehicle. 

The contract was signed during a visit of the French Minister of the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, to Kyiv on September 28, 2023. 

The ministry listed several armament contracts reached between the two countries, including several in the field of drones. For example, Delair Tech will supply additional surveillance drones, after the French government already acquired 150 of them for Ukraine that are already being delivered. It also mentioned two co-development and co-production contracts, one reached by Thales, and one by Turgis & Gaillard. 

More details on the latter were reported by La Tribune, stating that the contract aims to produce a “consumable” version of the Aarok in Ukraine. Without further details on what a consumable version may entail, one can assume that Turgis & Gaillard and Antonov will develop a simpler variant with the aim of making it more attritable. The exact missions envisioned are unknown. 

Antonov is primarily known as a manufacturer of freighters, especially heavy-lift cargo aircraft such as the Antonov An-124 Ruslan and the An-225 Mriya, which, until its destruction in February 2022, was the largest cargo aircraft in the world.  

With its manufacturing capabilities now hindered by the ongoing Russian invasion, Antonov recently shifted production efforts towards its drone business. In September 2023, Reuters reported that Antonov had opened a new drone center to support smaller manufacturers supplying unmanned systems to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

UPDATE 09-10-2023, 21:47 (UTC +3): Additional information on the interest from the DGA was added to the article.

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