The Royal Air Force’s five new General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air systems have started operations in Afghanistan, the UK Ministry of Defence confirms.

The five UAS were delivered in February 2014, and 10 Reapers are now operating from Kandahar airfield in support of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The British army also flies leased Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAS from Camp Bastion.

RAF Reaper full size - RAF

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“These aircraft provide real-time, life-saving video to ground commanders, which will continue to be vital to allied efforts to secure internal security in Afghanistan as we draw down allied forces from the country this year,” an MoD statement released on 3 July said.

A fleet of five Reapers operated by the RAF’s 13 and 39 squadrons were previously capable of providing a combined maximum of 36h of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance service per day from Kandahar, and the additional aircraft will lift this capacity to 72h.

The UAS can fly armed missions using laser-guided bombs and Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, in addition to its primary role in support of reconnaissance missions in-theatre.

According to the MoD, some 54,000h of operations have been carried out using Reapers in Afghanistan, during which 459 weapons have been released – amounting to less than one for every 120h flown.

“These new aircraft give the RAF enhanced force protection capability in support of UK, ISAF and Afghan troops,” Philip Dunne, UK minister for defence equipment, support and technology, says. “As we focus on the drawdown of UK forces from Afghanistan, the ability to provide force protection will become increasingly important, and [the] Reaper allows us to provide this assurance remotely and without significant ground presence.”