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RAF Reapers to be armed from December

General Atomics UAV currently operating in Afghanistan

The UK Royal Air Force expects to begin carrying live weapons aboard its General Atomics Reaper unmanned air vehicles from mid-December, says Wg Cdr Andrew Jeffrey, commanding officer of the service's 39 Sqn, who confirms: "We will have offensive capability soon." The aircraft is now operating in Afghanistan.

Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society's UAV Systems conference in London on 14 November, Jeffrey said that the RAF has approved "release of weapons in the middle of next month". While not providing details of the types of ordnance to be used operationally, he confirmed that 39 Sqn personnel dropped 30 live GBU-12 226kg (500lb) laser-guided bombs while training alongside the US Air Force's 42nd attack squadron, which also operates the Reaper. The RAF's 39 Sqn reformed with the Reaper in March, although its first crews began training in October 2006.

Jeffrey says that while the RAF has closely co-operated with the USAF during the development of its Reaper capability, there are now differences starting to creep into each service's approach. The RAF has begun operational trials of the use of cross-cueing between the UAV's synthetic aperture radar and electro-optical/infrared sensor suites as part of plans to emphasise the use of the aircraft as an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) asset. This has seen "very encouraging results" he says, while noting that "it is still very early days".

The UK approach emphasises the RAF's view of the Reaper as an ISTAR asset with a secondary weapons function, he says, whereas the USAF views weapons carriage and strike roles as the Reaper's primary task, with ISTAR as a secondary function.

RAF 39 Sqn is seeking to develop the ability to conduct 24/7 surveillance operations, but is currently restricted by manpower shortfalls. Jeffrey says that all current missions are flown with dual crews to ensure back-up is available at all stages of a mission. Those crews are dominated by RAF personnel, but others are drawn from the Royal Navy and British Army. The RN is about to allocate a second crew to the squadron to assist with improving availability, he says.

The RAF is also expecting requirements to deploy the Reaper in support of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, with this to place additional pressure on squadron planning. The period until that event represents a "very stressing timeframe" given current operational demands and the reality that the bulk of the squadron is now located at Creech AFB, Nevada.

Jeffrey says that while existing 39 Sqn operations are conducted in close co-operation with the USAF, plans are in place to achieve full independence once the squadron returns to the UK. Those plans include establishment of the RAF's own launch and recovery unit, with the USAF now undertaking that task for the squadron.

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