The UK's armed forces currently operate 335 unmanned air vehicles in support of operations in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence has revealed.

Responding to a question in the House of Lords on 30 October, parliamentary under-secretary of state Lord Hever detailed the current number of deployed remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) across five types.

Five General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Reapers are flown by the Royal Air Force's 39 Sqn from Kandahar airfield, offering the UK's only armed RPAS capability. The MoD says its aircraft had deployed 293 Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and 52 Raytheon Paveway II 226kg (500lb) laser-guided bombs by 22 October 2012, five years after first fielding the type.

 RAF Reaper - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

"These weapons may be released under the command of a pilot who uses rules of engagement [ROE] that are no different to those used for manned UK combat aircraft," the MoD says. "The targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives, and attacks are prosecuted in strict accordance with the law of armed conflict and UK ROE."

Operations with the Reaper are being expanded to involve 10 aircraft, following the formation of the RAF's 13 Sqn at Waddington, Lincolnshire, late last month. Its expected cost of acquiring and operating the type is expected to total £506 million ($815 million) by 2015.

"No decisions have yet been taken on whether to retain the Reaper system once combat operations end in Afghanistan," says minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne. UK involvement in combat operations in the nation is due to end in December 2014.

An interim intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance service being delivered under an urgent operational requirement deal includes nine Elbit Systems Hermes 450 tactical UAVs based at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province. The type, which has so far been involved in 11 crashes in Afghanistan, will be succeeded by the Thales UK/Elbit-developed Watchkeeper system.

 T-Hawk - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

The MoD's most widely used RPAS is the British Army's Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk III, with 239 of the hand-launched aircraft now deployed in Afghanistan. Eighteen Honeywell Tarantula Hawk vertical take-off and landing systems are also in use (above), along with 64 Prox Dynamics Black Hornet micro UAVs.

Source: Flight International