May 20, 2013
Credit: Tony Osborne
Purchasing the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAV has transformed the U.K. Royal Air Force's understanding of remotely piloted air operations.
But even though the RAF is preparing the ground to absorb a further five Reapers into its inventory in the coming months, as an urgent operational requirement (UOR) purchased to support theater operations in Afghanistan, officially the Reaper's career with the RAF is due to end when combat troops leave the country in late 2014.
Commanders face some tough challenges in the coming year. Several billion pounds have been spent over the last decade on new equipment purchased as UORs for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid for from the U.K. Treasury's special reserve, a fund that helps cover military operations. But if commanders wish to keep the equipment beyond the end of combat operations, the systems must be taken into the core budget of the defense ministry—a budget that was previously considered a black hole but has since been balanced by officials. The budget has £8 billion ($12 billion) earmarked for new programs, potentially including those that commanders are keen to retain after Afghanistan.
But Reaper faces competition from aircraft such as the Beechcraft Shadow R1 used to support special forces in-theater and the Sentinel, which despite not being purchased as a UOR may also be retired post-Afghanistan.
The RAF was involved in U.S. Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle operations long before the introduction of the Reaper, with crews flying the MQ-1 Predator. The RAF flew its first Reaper mission in Afghanistan just one month after the USAF and quickly became highly skilled in the use of its systems such as synthetic aperture radar. With more than 45,000 flight hours under their belts, RAF Reaper crews have accrued a great deal of experience, which could be lost if the Reaper capability was retired.
Yet, with just over a year of Reaper operations left, the RAF is continuing to invest in the platform. Ground control operations have now begun from RAF Waddington, allowing the service to take advantage of the 4-hr. time difference between the U.K. and Afghanistan. The RAF retains a single squadron, No. 39, at Creech AFB, Nev., where it continues to work closely with the USAF Reaper community.
Further investment is being made in the Reaper's complement of weaponry. The USAF recently confirmed it will conduct trials of MBDA's Brimstone missile to integrate the weapon onto the aircraft. The aircraft was purchased under the Foreign Military Sales program, therefore the U.S. government has the role of integrating the weapon rather than the customer.