The Royal Air Force is to move operational control for its fleet of General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air systems to the UK as part of a fleet expansion programme, its most senior officer has said.

Announcing the decision during a decommissioning ceremony for 13 Sqn at RAF Marham in Norfolk on 13 May, chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton also confirmed that the same unit will come back as the service's second Reaper squadron.

 RAF Reaper - Crown Copyright
© Cpl Mark Webster/Crown Copyright

Recently involved in the UK's Operation Ellamy contribution to the NATO-run campaign to protect civilians from attack in Libya, 13 Sqn until recently flew the Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft. Its personnel were involved in early activities against forces loyal to Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, and fired a number of MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missiles against infrastructure targets. Twelve of the long-range weapons were used, the RAF has said.

Dalton said 13 Sqn will be reformed next year at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Although this is the current home base for Reaper-equipped 39 Sqn, its operations in flying the armed combat intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance asset are conducted from Creech AFB, Nevada.

"This transition will see us bring Reaper mission control to the UK," Dalton said. The shift will enable the service to "make more efficient and effective use of our resources in exploiting this growing capability," he added.

"The formation of this new squadron follows our doubling of the Reaper capability to 10 aircraft, which represents an increased investment of £135 million [$218 million]," said defence secretary Liam Fox. The fleet expansion includes the purchase of five Reaper air vehicles and four ground control stations, and will sustain the capability until at least 2015, the Ministry of Defence has said.

 RAF Reaper GCS - Crown Copyright
© SAC Andrew Morris/Crown Copyright

Boosting the size of the Reaper fleet will eventually enable the UK to increase its provision of armed surveillance cover in Afghanistan using the type "from 36 to 72h persistent coverage every day," according to the MoD.

The UK during April marked the completion of its first 20,000 flight hours with Reaper air vehicles since 39 Sqn's introduction of the type in Afghanistan in October 2007.

Source: Flight International