Grim future for the Reaper - crashed in Afghanistan, short of money in Whitehall- Watchkeeper along real soon now
The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, the most recent model based on the Predator is described as a hunter killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It has been operation in Afghanistan since its inaugural flight on September 26th last year. At the time Gen. T. Michael Moseley, US Air Force chief of staff. "We've taken these aircraft from performing mainly as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms to carrying out true hunter-killer missions." ( Gen. T. Michael Moseley lost his job
was sackedthis week partly due to rsistance to deploying UAV's and also losing atomic bombs.)
Like the Predator, the Reaper is launched, recovered and maintained at deployed locations in theatre, while being remotely operated by pilots and sensor operators 7,000 miles (11,300km) away, at the US Air Force's Creech airbase in Nevada USA.
The MQ-9 has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high and carries more munitions - notably , 4 Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, plus two Raytheon 500lb (226kg) Paveway II-class laser-guided bombs. (see pic)
Now this week Caroline Wyatt of the BBC reports on the role of the RAF operating the single current Reaper they have in Afghanistan. One of the 3 units which the UK's Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, who was in Kandahar at the time of their delivery described as ""major milestone for the RAF, which will significantly enhance the U.K.'s surveillance capability in Afghanistan," referring to the ISTAR capability - Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance.
They also make a major dent in the pocket at £5Mn each plus base kit bringing the bill for 3 units to £50Mn. Now 44 RAF crew from RAF 39 Squadron also help fly the one RAF Reaper curently airborne - apparently they also "help fly the US's Predator surveillance aircraft from their base in the Nevada desert". They rely on the the Skynet 5 satelites another of those wonderful private finance initiatives, earning their owner a modest pittance no doubt. The MoD wanted its own satellites, but had no money to pay for them to be built, nor any cash to run them.
Skynet 5 is unusual (up to date) among UK military equipment as it has been provided under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The £3.6bn satellites and supporting infrastructure are owned by Paradigm Communications, which bought them using City money.The similiar plan for tankers is as they say,..."on hold".
One of the initial brace of RAF Reapers met its nemesis on Apri l9th this year. At the time the MoD said the vehicle "made a forced landing whilst on an operation over a remote unpopulated area of southern Afghanistan. Sensitive items were recovered and the remaining wreckage was destroyed. The reason for the forced landing is under investigation; however, mechanical issues are suspected." (The U.S. Air Force lost two Predator MQ-1s in the space of one week in April in Iraq).
To keep it's technical secrets from the Taliban (and onward sale) it had to be destroyed. (See Hercules in Maysan)
The third wonderbird is due to be delivered in January, while a replacement for the lost plane is also on order. Order for 10 more have been placed perhaps to be followed by orders for more of the
toys vital airborne surveillance units.However recent "MOD funding crises" may mean a cut back on this order.
Not only can the Reaper, "loiter above a potential target, for example the home of an insurgent commander, for hours on end, watching the pattern of life and ensuring that the target individual is in the building and - just as importantly - there aren't innocent people in there as well, " eco warriors will be relieved to know that it is eco-friendly - Caroline was told that "Thanks to their light weight and big wings, they burn just 25lb (11kg) of fuel per hour." A massive cost saving considering the price of gas these days.
Reapers cannot fly at all times .. theyare limited. Ceilings of 6,000 feet or less will prevent collection during mission, headwind of 35 knots, tailwind of 3 knots, and crosswind of 20 knots and higher level speeds exceeding 50 knots or when (as is not unusual in mountainous Afghanistan) lightning within 10 nautical miles and ground ice conditions all prevent use.
As well as the the Reaper, the RAF use several Isaeli Elbit-built Hermes 450 UAVs operating in Afghanistan under a novel pay-as-you-fly arrangement with contractor Thales UK. This was yet another. " make do and mend " as they wait around for the much vaunted British Army's Watchkeeper UAV program.
Watchkeeper - a modified Hermes 450, is due in service in late 2010, although work is under way to see if the system can be introduced earlier. The National Audit Office report lists the forecast cost of the prgram as £901m. For this sum, the British army will receive just 54 robot aircraft, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
Tax payers might note that when available the long awaited (since 2000 delayed in January 2005 for shortage of MOD cash "initial operating capability in early 2006 ") Watchkeeper (watched over by Air Commodore ‘Flash’ Gordon RAF MBE MBA MA FCIPD the UK Ministry of Defence’s Director Equipment Capability ISTAR)will not be a British aircraft. (See Hansard Jan 2003)
Main contractor Thales UK (French owned) admits it will be using French expertise in the Watchkeeper's I-MASTER radar, and the drone's airframe, electro-optics and engine tech all come from Israel originally.The Thales team also includes QinetiQ, Aerosystems International, Thales Sensors, Thales Defence Information Systems and Thales Optronics. The UK engine making firm will remain fully Israeli owned, and the U-Tacs joint venture between Thales and Israel's Elbit (UAV Tactical Systems) will be 51% Israeli - thus, Israeli controlled. This led to problems and delays because Thales had problems obtaining US export licences for the Ice Management System using an innovative electro-expulsive de-icing system (EEDS) because of the Israeli involvement.
Ground and flight testing for Project Watchkeeper will be handled by Qinetiq,and be based at the MOD site at ParcAberporth where the Army have been trying (with notabkle lack of succes) to design and build UAVs for decades. Rhodri Morgan First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, was ecstatic when this was announced just in time for Christmas last year ..." test and evaluation in Wales reinforces the role of ParcAberporth as a site of worldwide importance for unmanned system development,"
Britain's only other tactical UAV, the Phoenix, was pensioned off in January.
UPDATE Sunday 8th June
A Daily Mail article claims that the team have had a kill - Sources at the Ministry of Defence said the strike, which took place in the last ten days, killed a 'high value' Taliban target, but officials would not confirm the insurgent's identity - see "snuff" pictures.
They also report that the RAF is due to buy its own control system for the Reapers, and in future the drones will be 'flown' by aircrew based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
Schematic diagram and lurid pictures here