A retained Royal Air Force fleet of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Reaper remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) could soon gain the ability to use a UK-developed weapon system, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed.

Responding to a parliamentary question on 15 May, minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne said discussions are taking place ahead of a planned test later this year involving MBDA's Brimstone air-to-surface missile.

An extensive redevelopment of the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire optimised for use from fast jet platforms, the dual-mode seeker-equipped weapon today arms the RAF's Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft operating in Afghanistan.

"We are currently working with the US Air Force's Big Safari Group to establish and agree the details of the test requirements and expect trials to proceed in the autumn," Dunne said. He declined to reveal information on the expected cost of performing the trial, citing "commercial interests".

Discussions with the USAF are necessary, as the RAF's growing fleet of Reapers is deployed on operations in Afghanistan, and cannot be flown in UK airspace. A test range at Nellis AFB in Nevada is one potential site for a Brimstone trial to be performed, with personnel from both services flying the Reaper from nearby Creech AFB.

The RAF earlier this year controlled its first operational Reaper mission over Afghanistan using a ground control station installed at its Waddington air base in Lincolnshire, England. The service is in the process of increasing its fleet of the type from five to 10 air vehicles, using urgent operational requirement funds to support the mission inside Afghanistan.

The MoD has yet to formally declare whether it will retain the Reaper capability post-Afghanistan, by bringing the equipment within its core defence budget allocation. Confirmation of the Brimstone weapons trial plan is the clearest indication to date that the UK intends to retain the armed RPAS fleet, however.

RAF Reapers currently fly with the same sensor and weapons payload as USAF examples, with this including four Hellfires and two Raytheon GBU-12 226kg (500lb) laser-guided bombs. The MoD has not revealed an interest in replacing the latter type, but has the Raytheon Systems-developed Paveway IV precision-guided bomb within its combat inventory, were it to pursue such a strategy.

Source: Flight International