Drone stats: how the UK has adjusted Reaper weapons use

Thanks to Chris Cole at the Drone Wars UK website for providing The DEW Line with the most detailed stats we’ve seen so far about the Royal Air Force’s use of armed Reapers in Afghanistan over the last half-decade. Here’s a Crown Copyright image showing one of the type on the ground at Kandahar airfield, with a combat load of two Paveway-series precision-guided bombs and four Hellfire missiles.

Reaper 560.jpg

Acquired from the Ministry of Defence following a request made via the Freedom of Information Act, the data shows how the methodology for using the remotely piloted air system’s (to use the RAF’s preferred title) weapons load has changed over time.

Put simply, less is clearly more these days in the fight against the Taliban, as the use of 226kg (500lb) GBU-12 Paveways by the UK’s aircraft seemingly stopped before the end of 2011. For the Reaper force, the weapon of choice is now the smaller Hellfire, also used in Afghanistan by the British Army’s Apache AH1 attack helicopters. The sharp increase seen between 2008 and 2011 is largely due to the number of unmanned vehicles in use having expanded from one to five.

Reaper table.jpg

I suspect the shift in weapon use can largely be explained by the current rules of engagement in Afghanistan, where NATO is looking for less engagement and the use of lower-yield weapons, and probably also because the RAF would rather be using the more capable Paveway IV bomb carried by its Tornado GR4s than the GBU-12.

What the numbers don’t reflect are the number of missions flown by the RAF’s Reapers which don’t result in the use of weapons at all. “Its primary role remains intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” the MoD notes in its response to the FOI request. “Reaper only operates in support of UK and coalition forces on ground operations, in Afghanistan, under the legal authority of UN Security Council resolutions and with the consent of the government of Afghanistan,” it adds.

My view of the RAF’s Reaper operations no doubt differs substantially from that of Drone Wars UK, but as things stand today, the future doesn’t look bright for the type post-Afghanistan. While a ground control capability now exists at Waddington in Lincolnshire, the aircraft currently can’t be flown in UK airspace and the MoD has recently stated that it has no plan to use them operationally back home.


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