• The war in Ukraine highlights the strategic importance of drones of all types in conflict zones.
  • This is precisely an area in which the French army is lagging far behind.
  • The 2024-2030 military programming bill was drafted to make up for this delay, but the process is still expected to take several years.

War, revealing shortcomings and a field of innovation. Military and experts agree that in times of war, everything is easier, simpler, faster. And that the urgency in which a nation at war finds itself encourages innovations, many of which will then be inspired in a "normal process of feedback," acknowledges Vincent Desportes, former soldier, professor of strategy Sciences Po Paris. This is how the French armed forces are closely observing what is happening in Ukraine, including the intensive use of drones of all types. The observation is clear, we are late.

We talked about it recently in 20 Minutes, Ukrainian soldiers make frequent and unorthodox use of recreational drones in the field to carry out observation or attack missions. A diversion with a lot of "hack" that could seem anecdotal, except that in practice, the military interest is not trivial: "The presence of many drones on the front lines has a significant psychological effect on the enemy who does not feel safe anywhere," says Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre-Yves of the program and weapons systems office of the General Staff of the French army. "It is also effective in that the mere presence of these aircraft is restrictive, forcing the Russians to take this threat into account by deploying jamming capabilities," he adds. Learning to be wary of drones is a point that, from now on, is becoming widespread in the training of French soldiers.

"Battlefield transparency"

However, it was not the Ukrainian conflict that made the French military discover this threat. The most instructive case dates back to 2008, during an operation by French soldiers engaged in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. "There was this Taliban ambush in the Uzbin Valley in which 21 French soldiers were killed," recalls Michel Goya, a former colonel of the naval troops, historian and strategist. "At the time, everyone wondered why we hadn't used drones to go and look at what was on the pole in which we were ambushed," he recalls.

"This is one of the positive effects of the use of civilian drones in Ukraine: the transparency of the battlefield," acknowledges Lt-Col. Pierre-Yves. This is how the French army has acquired many civilian drones for training purposes: "All our units must learn to use drones in the implementation of the tactics to adopt," he continues. For example, the captain, before investing a village, he sends his drone to observe the entrances to the village, locate the enemy and it allows him to set up his maneuver. "

"Kamikaze drones" bought urgently

In addition to the interest of civilian drones, Ukrainian soldiers also quickly tested the effectiveness of so-called "kamikaze" drones. Again, it started with hacks, when the Ukrainians fixed explosive charges on drones using makeshift systems and then launched them on armored vehicles, in trenches or on planes in parking lots. We saw this recently demonstrated when a Ukrainian unit was able to render a Russian reconnaissance plane inoperative by detonating a small FPV drone above its radar. Volodymyr Zelensky's army has nevertheless moved upmarket with the acquisition of several hundred Switchblade 300, from the American manufacturer AeroVironment.

The advantages of these "remotely operated munitions" over a missile are multiple: being able to choose its target once in the air, abort an attack if necessary, their extreme portability... "We don't have it because we didn't see the point. But it is a real lack that we will try to repair quickly after seeing their effectiveness in Ukraine, "concedes the staff officer. So much so that an emergency purchase of 72 Switchbalde 300s was launched to train French special forces in this type of weaponry.

A gap to be made up by 2030

According to historian and strategist Michel Goya, the war has taken the Ukrainian army from novice to precursor on the use of drones. This is still far from being the case in France. "This war has made us even more aware of the delay we have here. Drones are a symptom of the problems we encounter with military manufacturers who are pushing towards the expensive high-end instead of going towards the low cost," he said.

The other concern is the weight of administration and procedures. When special forces more easily obtain exemptions to equip and experiment, mass acquisitions of new equipment go through much more cumbersome procedures: "For drones, you have to define needs, define budgets, launch calls for tenders. Yes, it may take a few years," confirms Lt-Colonel Pierre-Yves. It is in this direction that the new military programming law tends to go: "The France will engage more frankly on areas such as cyber, space, intelligence, ground-to-air defense of new generation and drones," confirmed Sébastien Lecornu, Minister of the Armed Forces, last January. For the period 2024-2030, "these themes alone represent several tens of billions of euros," he added.

  • War in Ukraine
  • Society
  • Volodymyr Zelensky
  • Arms
  • Drone
  • Army