First trials for the weapon are expected to take place this fall and military sources say they want the results “quickly,” which suggests the RAF would like to use the weapon in Afghanistan.
Senior RAF officers point out that putting Brimstone on the Reaper would ensure that the U.K. has a locally available source of a proven weapon for the aircraft, rather than having to rely on stocks of Lockheed Martin's Hellfire. Brimstone has many characteristics of the Hellfire, and is built inside what is virtually the same airframe. With its dual-mode guidance, using both laser and millimetric seeker, the weapon can be used in a fire-and-forget mode with salvoes offering the ability to attack more than one target. The weapon was used to great effect in Libya during Operation Unified Protector where it was fired from RAF Panavia Tornado GR4s, currently the only aircraft in the U.K. inventory capable of firing the weapon.
Of course, this extra investment does not guarantee the future of the aircraft is assured, after all, the U.K. defense ministry had just completed modernizations of both the Jaguar and Harrier fleets when both types were retired in 2007 and 2011, respectively.
“The Reapers give the RAF capabilities now that have been pushed to the right in terms of funding,” says Douglas Barrie, fellow for aerospace research with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Barrie points to the retirement of the Canberra PR9 reconnaissance aircraft and the planned retirement of the Tornado and its Raptor recon pod, a system which has proved its worth in Afghanistan.
“With Reaper, the RAF has all these capabilities now, replacing it with a new platform would have to be done pretty fast,” adds Barrie.
If kept, the system could form the basis of the U.K.'s Scavenger program, but it could be long time before Reapers could be operated in the U.K.
RAF officers say that the disconnect between pilot and machine means much of the training could be simulated and that the Reapers could be simply stored, awaiting their next deployment.