Spain has confirmed that it will eventually try to weaponise its future fleet of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicles, although the immediate priority is to bring the surveillance-only variant into operation.

Madrid's programme to acquire a class III UAV for its air force began in September last year, with the Reaper eventually selected in mid-2015 over the competing Israel Aerospace Industries Heron TP.

“The LOA [letter of agreement] from the US government is about to be signed, and this could be done before the end of the year,” Col Enrique Martinez Vallas, former chief of acquisitions programmes for the Spanish Air Staff, told a London conference on 19 November.

Vallas says there are no technical obstacles to adding offensive capability to the Reaper as it already has hardpoints for the carriage of weapons, but the US government would have to authorise any request for weaponisation.

That has become enabled following the easing of export restrictions in February, with Italy in November becoming the first nation - outside of the UK - to receive permission to arm its MQ-9 fleet.

Spain could follow suit, but Vallas notes that it took some ten years for Italy to be permitted to arm its Reapers. Madrid, he says, is more concerned with completing the basic acquisition for now.

MQ-9 - US Air Force

US Air Force

Vallas says that although both the Heron TP and the Reaper met the air force's requirements, commonality with NATO allies was a key reason for the selection of the US-built platform.

Four aircraft and two ground control stations are due to be delivered under the proposed deal, and training will begin in 2016, Vallas says.

The first two aircraft plus one ground control station (GCS) will be delivered in 2017. Initial operational capability will be achieved with the second delivery, which is expected in 2018, while full operational capability and the final aircraft are expected in 2020.

However, this schedule may be advanced if the Spanish can secure earlier production slots. Although the Royal Netherlands Air Force is seeking to acquire a similar number of systems, its acquisition has been held up over funding issues.

The Spanish air force is also in the process of acquiring an upgraded variant of the Airbus Defence & Space Atlante UAV that will be able to carry a multi-sensor and weapons payload.

The contract may be signed this year or soon after the next cabinet is formed following a general election on 20 December. “It has more capabilities with automatic take-off and landing, increased endurance and payload,” Vallas says.