The UK's manning level on the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air system has been revealed, with the information disclosed in response to a parliamentary question.
Asked "how many drone pilots are currently qualified in the Royal Air Force; and how many are undergoing training?", parliamentary under-secretary of state for defence Lord Astor said: "There are currently 31 Royal Air Force personnel qualified to pilot the Reaper remotely piloted aircraft." A further 16 will be trained for the task between October 2012 and September 2013, he added.
Operated from Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan since October 2007 and assigned to its 39 Sqn, the RAF's armed Reapers are controlled by UK personnel positioned at the US Air Force's Creech AFB in Nevada. Missions are conducted at any one time by a crew of three: a pilot; sensor operator; and mission co-ordinator/image analyst, while a limited number of forward-deployed personnel are responsible for launch and recovery activities.
A new ground control element will also be installed at the unit's permanent home in Waddington, Lincolnshire, as part of a programme to increase its operating strength to 10 air vehicles.
Nick Harvey, while armed forces minister earlier this year, said the UK's Reapers had conducted 176 strikes in Afghanistan in the three years to 19 June 2012. The aircraft is routinely flown with a combat load of two 226kg (500lb) Raytheon Paveway II-series laser-guided bombs and four Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.
The Reaper's principal task is to deliver intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance services. RAF aircraft typically provide about 250h of full-motion video coverage per week, according to an analysis of recent operational updates provided by the service.