An expected end to UK combat involvement in Afghanistan before the end of 2014 is unlikely to mean the end for its General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS), according to Royal Air Force assistant chief of the air staff AVM Edward Stringer.
"While the [Ministry of Defence] has yet to decide on the exact composition of our Reaper force beyond combat operations in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that persistent surveillance will be in demand as we transition to a more contingent footing," says Stringer. "It is hard - but not impossible - to imagine a future where these [RPAS] assets will not be a part of our force mix."
Current RAF projections suggest that around one-third of the service's combat aircraft inventory will be unmanned by the 2030s. While Stringer notes that this split technically stands at around 50% today in Afghanistan, alongside Panavia Tornado GR4s, he says Reaper crews on average only release precision-guided weapons once every 12 sorties. This, he says, "emphasises the intelligence-biased output of this particular capability".
RAF-operated Reapers drop weapons on average every 12th sortie
The air force's current armed RPAS also face challenges from adverse weather conditions, and he adds they "would certainly not last long if they were subjected to a significant air threat".
Asked whether the current type could be retained beyond the UK's involvement in Afghanistan, during a pre-DSEi unmanned air systems conference in London on 9 September, Stringer said: "There are extant programmes out there, such as Scavenger, and one must assess whether Reaper can play into that requirement. Clearly, there's a very good chance of it so doing."
Stringer also declines to detail the RAF's current level of commitment to integrating MBDA's Brimstone air-to-surface missile with the platform, but comments: "We are not the only people looking at putting that capability on Reaper, and from an operations point of view it certainly makes sense."
The US military has previously shown interest in the European weapon, as has the French defence ministry, which signed a contract in August 2013 to acquire 14 of the General Atomics-built aircraft.
Benefits of using Brimstone over the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire would include a reduced risk of causing collateral damage, Stringer says.
Stringer's comments were supported at DSEi on 11 September by Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, air officer commanding the RAF's 1 Group organisation. "We will have a Reaper capability beyond 2015," he believes.