After many months of asking, I finally got the chance to visit the Royal Air Force’s 13 Sqn at Waddington in Lincolnshire on 15 January, and to see its UK-based ground control station for the General Atomics Reaper.
The UK’s only armed remotely piloted air system, the Reaper has been in RAF service since late 2007, with five of the air vehicles in use in Afghanistan. That number will double to 10 very soon though, once a second batch has been accepted. Once fielded, these will enable the service to deliver up to a combined 72h of surveillance cover every day.
The RAF and Ministry of Defence are well aware that not everyone likes the Reaper (Crown Copyright image below), and a large part of this visit was to try to combat anti-”drone” sentiment.
The fact that the RAF has released 459 weapons from the type makes opponents use phrases like “remote-controlled killing” and “killing without consequence”, but that should be balanced against the more than 54,000h flown and the use of identical rules of engagement as RAF Tornado and British Army Apache crews. Those operating the Reaper from the UK, and with 39 Sqn from Creech AFB in Nevada, also receive regular legal training, and can pick up the phone and talk to a military lawyer during the course of a mission, which could run for as long as 16h and involve multiple personnel.
As one pilot told me, the feeling he gets when preparing to release a weapon from the Reaper from many miles distant is no different to when he did so previously from the cockpit of a Harrier. While the mainstream press and detractors alike will never adopt the phrase “remotely piloted air system”, the distinction away from using the phrase “unmanned” is a clearly legitimate one.
As I reported on our defence channel, a senior official from the UK’s Joint Forces Command gave us a clear indication that the RAF’s expanded Reaper fleet will be brought within the MoD’s “core” budget (from being an urgent operational requirement deal), and plans made to declare it as an expeditionary capability post-Afghanistan. In short, this is a system that won’t be discarded until something better comes along. That should be provided via the Scavenger programme, which will also look at introducing an unmanned system which could be used in contested airspace.
The new issue of Flight International also includes a one-page article about the UK’s plans to go further with using UAS and RPAS. That’s available to read now in our FG Club, and includes the following quote from one speaker at Waddington:
“While legality and proportionality are key tenets of conflict, warfare is not a competition to be held on equal terms. The use of UAS and RPAS in a wide variety of roles contributes to military success, and our mission to protect civilians. They are part of our asymmetric advantage, and we should not shy away from their legitimate use.”
Not all would agree with him, but he’s certainly got a point.