Introduced to combat duty last October, the MQ-9 Reaper carries an impressive sensor suite - and precision-guided air-to-surface weapons
Less than eight months after flying the first sortie with its General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B) unmanned air vehicle, the UK Royal Air Force has performed its first armed strike with the type, and announced its intention to halt use of the smaller MQ-1 Predator around 2011.
Flown by the RAF's 39 Sqn from Creech AFB near Las Vegas, Nevada under a co-operative agreement with the US Air Force, RAF Predator/Reaper operations are providing persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance services to British and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.
© All photographs Craig Hoyle/Flight International
"We are here to make a difference, and to save lives on the ground," says Wg Cdr Andy Jeffrey, officer commanding 39 Sqn, who early this month revealed that a UK-owned Reaper used its offensive capabilities against the Taliban (Flight International, 10-16 June).
The unit's Reaper-equipped B Flight has logged over 1,200 flying hours with two air vehicles since last October, although current operations have been affected by the loss of airframe ZZ200 to a forced landing incident during April. Further details of the mishap will be revealed in a Board of Inquiry report to be published within the next few months.
Primarily viewed as an ISTAR asset, versus the USAF's employment of the Reaper for close air support, the UK's lone example currently performs tasks such as route reconnaissance and convoy support for ground forces, including looking for insurgent activity and improvised explosive devices.
Other duties include target tracking and helicopter landing site reconnaissance, but operators are regularly retasked during a mission to respond to emerging events. For example, Flight International witnessed part of a 10h combat sortie on 2 June, during which aircraft ZZ201 was tasked with supporting a convoy near Lashkar Gar, but was quickly requested to instead maintain surveillance on a suspect compound.
"The sensors are absolutely awesome," says Jeffrey, describing the Reaper's Raytheon MTS-B electro-optical/infrared and laser designator payload, plus its General Atomics Lynx synthetic aperture radar. Imagery from these can be downlinked to Rover terminal-equipped ground forces in real time, and while a manned type such as the UK's BAE Systems Harrier GR9 can provide a comparable service using its Lockheed Martin Sniper reconnaissance/targeting pod, he notes: "What it can't do is stay there for 11h."
UK experience with Predator-series UAVs dates back to January 2004, when the RAF's 1115 Flt (now A Flt, 39 Sqn) began operating US-owned MQ-1s in Afghanistan and Iraq, with a commitment of 44 personnel.
RAF Reaper crews began training with the USAF's 42nd Attack Squadron in October 2006, around the same time that the UK Ministry of Defence signed a two-year, urgent operational requirement deal for three air vehicles and two mobile ground control stations. "It really is a melding of minds," says Jeffrey.
Previously equipped with the English Electric Canberra PR9, 39 Sqn reformed at Creech in March 2007, although its administrative base remains at the RAF's ISTAR hub at Waddington in Lincolnshire. A long-term basing study has identified the site and three others as possible locations for the unit's eventual return to the UK.
Nine crews - each comprised of a pilot, sensor operator and mission co-ordinator/image analyst - have now completed training, with the RAF requiring the first two positions to be filled by an experienced pilot and weapon system operator only.
These have been drawn from the fast jet, rotary and maritime patrol communities, with around 40% having ground-attack experience. "It works really well, because everybody brings something different," says Jeffrey. Other personnel have been sourced from the RAF, British Army and the UK Royal Navy.
But with the RAF planning to operate the Reaper for many years - in December 2007 it requested a potential $1 billion acquisition of a further 10 UAVs and related mission equipment - more crews are needed.
"We fly as much as we can, seven days a week," says Jeffrey. "But if we are going to do 24/7 operations, it has to be sustainable. We need more crews to extend the current coverage." A third Reaper will be introduced next January, while a replacement for ZZ200 is also on order. Four are needed to support round-the-clock coverage, he says, as a combat-loaded air vehicle has an endurance of around 16h flying at up to 30,000ft (9,150m).
Take-off and landing is performed in Afghanistan by an RAF or USAF crew, with control later passed to operators at Creech using Ku-band satellite communications, adding a delay of 1-4s.
Deployed maintenance services are provided by General Atomics and USAF personnel, although the RAF provides around 25 engineers to the 500-strong 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Creech, working on both Predator and Reaper airframes and systems.
A requirement to increase the 39 Sqn staffing level from 80 personnel to 13 crews has already been identified, with its commitment to the MQ-1 viewed as a likely manpower source. "We are going to gradually draw down our Predator people," says Jeffrey. "They will leave at a point that is mutually acceptable probably after two and a half years. I would like to see them come to Reaper."
All of B Flt's crews are trained to use the USAF's standard air-to-ground weapons fit for the Reaper: four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and two GBU-12 226kg (500lb) laser-guided bombs. Conversion requires eight sorties for experienced Predator pilots, or 16 for those with no previous UAV experience.
However, Jeffrey notes: "We are not just there picking targets we are fully integrated into the air tasking order, as a manned aeroplane would be."
The squadron is now working to create a joint concept of UAV operations with the British Army, test interoperability with other RAF ISTAR assets, and to investigate long-term support requirements for the Reaper.
"We are learning lessons every day with our USAF colleagues," says Jeffrey. "We were about nine months behind when we started this programme. We're now pretty much up there with them. I'm impressed every time I go flying. You are fully in the fight."