UK plans to procure General Atomics Predator B UAVs in doubt

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The UK's plans to procure another 10 General Atomics Reaper (Predator B) unmanned air vehicles are in doubt, with funding believed to be outside forthcoming equipment spending plans.

"We keep our operational requirements under constant review, but at present there is no endorsed requirement for additional platforms," says the Ministry of Defence.

The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency early this year notified Congress of a possible $1 billion foreign military sale to the UK of 10 Reaper UAVs and associated equipment.

But in addition to a current budget crisis within the MoD, the US Air Force - which has a requirement for 25 of the "hunter-killer" aircraft - has booked up all production slots until 2012, placing further doubt on the export deal.

An initial three Reapers and two mission ground-control stations were purchased by the UK through FMS channels under an urgent operational requirement deal, and two of these have entered service in Afghanistan since September 2007.

However, it is unlikely that the systems will be taken into core UK defence funding, limiting the extent to which support can be acquired.

The procurement doubts contrast sharply with the RAF's enthusiasm for UAVs and Reaper in particular, and the insatiable appetite of ground commanders for live video.

The type is operated by personnel from the UK's tri-service 39 Sqn, "parented" by the Air Warfare Centre at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, but currently based at Creech AFB, Nevada.

The unit will eventually have two flights to provide continuous intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance services, with its first Army Air Corps and Royal Navy pilots currently in training.

Initial crew training will conclude by the end of March, with the third UAV to be operational in July.

A strike capability will also be integrated soon. "The aircraft is not armed at the moment, but will be in weeks to take part in time-sensitive targeting of fleeting targets," says a senior RAF source.

The service "would prefer something smaller than [a standard AGM-114] Hellfire" warhead, as this would limit collateral damage, particularly in urban environments, the source adds.

The aircraft will initially carry up to four Hellfires and two GBU-12 225kg (500lb) laser-guided bombs.