French Reaper launches GBU-12 for the first time in Niger

The Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace (AAE – French Air and Space Force) announced on August 24 that it has for the first time launched a GBU-12 laser-guided munition from an MQ-9A Reaper Block 5 during an operational mission. The launch took place on August 17 during an Operation Barkhane sortie in Niger, marking a further step to achieving full operational capability with the Block 5 UAV.

The Block 5 system offers more powerful intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and paves the way for improved kinetic capabilities. Reaper Block 5 now has a new operational capability following its GBU 12 ammunition firing qualification. A first experimental campaign had been carried out from March to May 2021 from France’s Base Aérienne Projetée (BAP – Forward Operating Base) at Niamey in Niger. Its objective was to test the new Block 5 system in an operational context.

French Reaper Block 5 with GBU-12
French Air Force MQ-9A Block 5 Reaper serial number 542 taxies out at Niamey, Niger, armed with GBU-12 laser-guided munitions. État-Major des Armées

A second campaign took place at the end of July to test the carrying and firing capacity of the GBU-12 on this new standard Reaper. Today, the testing is completed and the armed Reaper Block 5 is being employed in operations in the Bande Sahélo-Saharienne (BSS – Sahelo-Saharan Strip). The AAE thus has a UAV offering better video and radar quality, improved connectivity, as well as a more versatile weapon capacity.

The next milestones will validate the Reaper Block 5’s carriage of the GBU-49 and the Hellfire missile. "The Reaper Block 5 allows for better synergy between crews and increased co-ordination between the different players, especially when launching weapons. Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, director of the experimentation campaign, said: "The ergonomics of the system are simplified, which brings significant added value to operations, as currently in BSS. Reaper Block 5 also significantly increases real-time intelligence gathering (ISR) capacity, helping to consolidate an already robust targeting process that fully respects international humanitarian law. These new capabilities, implemented by trained crews, give the responsiveness and adaptation to fulfill an ever-widening range of missions, in BSS and in other theatres.”

Led by the French armed forces, in partnership with the G5 Sahel countries, Operation Barkhane was launched on August 1, 2014. It is based on a strategic approach in partnership with the main countries of the Sahel-Saharan strip: Burkina-Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. It brings together around 5,100 soldiers whose mission is to fight armed terrorist groups and support the armed forces of partner countries so that they can deal with this threat.

The French Reapers are operated by Escadron de Drones 01.033 ‘Belfort’ at Base Aérienne (BA) 709 Cognac-Châteaubernard. However, they are routinely forward deployed to the BAP at BA101 Niamey at Diori Hamani International Airport, Niger.