On 8 September, the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held what is apparently an annual symposium on drones at the Shrivenham Defence Academy. While the overall theme of the symposium was how drones could help ‘UK Resilience Operations’, attendees were also given updates by senior military officials on the progress of the UK’s major drone programmes: Reaper and Watchkeeper.
We have asked the MoD for a full copy of the updates under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) and will post them here when (if!) our request is accepted. Meanwhile we will have to reply on the reports of the briefings according to an article in Shephard News. According to the article Wing Commander Gary Coleman briefed delegates about the Reaper:
The RAF’s fleet of MQ-9 Reapers purchased under a UOR for operations in Afghanistan has now completed 25,000 flight hours. The RAF’s Reaper community is now doubling in size to 10 aircraft and a second squadron – XIII Sqn – is being reformed onto the Reaper to begin ground control station operations from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. With a fleet of 10 aircraft and 44 crews, the RAF will be able to provide three ‘combat air patrols’ or CAPs over Afghanistan 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Wing Commander Gary Coleman, HQ 2 Group ISTAR (Land), told delegates that crew retention had been an issue as aircrew were being based at Creech AFB outside Las Vegas for three years away from family and friends in the UK, flying operational missions and then returning home to family.
He also pointed out that the time differences between Afghanistan and Creech meant that while the aircraft was flying in daylight over Afghanistan, the crews at Creech would be working night shifts flying it. Coleman hopes that the time differences will be addressed when flying begins from Waddington which is just four hours behind Kabul time.
He did point out that the Reaper community had enjoyed an influx of personnel from the Nimrod fleet, which was taken out of service in May 2010. An experimental training programme, Project Daedalus, trained a group of four non-aircrew including two air traffic controllers, a fighter controller and a policeman in the United States to fly the MQ-1 Predator. The four were amongst the top-rated in their class beating pilots with fast jet experience. There is now some consideration in training the four up to fly the MQ-9.
Shephard News also reported on the update by Major Matt Moore of the Watchkeeper Implementation Team. According to the article Moore reported that the British Army’s new Watchkeeper UAS has flown its longest flight yet during a test flight from west Wales.
A test flight in the beginning of September from the Parc Aberporth flight test centre saw the Watchkeeper fly for 14 hours and out to a range of 115 km, making the sortie the longest both in terms of range and endurance…
‘We launched the air vehicle at dawn and we recovered it at dusk as we are currently limited to testing in daylight hours only, but we still had another four hours of fuel in the tank.’
Watchkeeper has now completed some 320 hours of flight testing over 230 flights and Moore said the programme is still on track to be fielded in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2012.
In preparation, a number of modifications have been made to get the aircraft ready for operation in Afghanistan including the addition of covert lighting as well as additional IT systems in the ground control station to make it more compatible with systems being used in theatre.
Personnel began training for Watchkeeper in May. As well as flight testing at Aberporth, the Royal Artillery will also conduct training flights from MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire from where the aircraft will be flown in airspace specially allotted for UAV flying around and to the south of the Salisbury Plain Training Area. Royal Artillery crews will also be able to use the grass airstrip at Upavon for rough field or austere flight operations with the system.
Moore also said his team was exploring the potential of partnering the Watchkeeper with the Army Air Corps Apache attack helicopter, so that the Watchkeeper could cue or send the Apache imagery of potential targets.
As well as this Shivenham confernce and the ASTRAEA conference reported below, the DSEI arms fair has generated a lot of news about drones, whihc we will cover in the next post.