Last month the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held a 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 (see our story here from last month). We applied to the MoD for copies of the presentations under Freedom of Information (FoI) Act and received them yesterday. To view the presentations simply click on the images.
The briefing on the Reaper drone, entitled ‘RAF Reaper MALE RPAS [‘Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Air System] capability/Lessons’ covers the armed capability of Reaper; the ‘Reaper Roadmap’ as well as lessons identified from operations. Although the civil use of drones is refered to, there is little no information on this in presentation.
Slide eight of the presentation shows the ‘Reaper Roadmap. The Reapers currently on operation and those planned to come into service in 2012/13 have an ‘out service date’ of 2015 and there is a three year gap before the planned new drone capability ‘Scavenger’ will be available in 2018. This ‘gap’ is highlighted in the roadmap and may mean that additional Reapers will be procured.
Most interesting in the presentation are the nine slides covering ‘lessons identified’ covering operations, impact on personnel, safety, training and procurement. While the presentation only gives the headlines with the detail no doubt covered in the accompanying talk by Wing Commander Gary Coleman, from the presentation we learn that:
- From mid-2012 there will be 44 Reaper crews operating UK Reapers with three Reapers constantly flying 24/7
- There have now been over 190 drone strikes in Afghanistan by British Reaper crews
- Hellfire missiles are three times more likely to be uses than the 500lb bomb
- If “lower yield weapons” had been available more strikes would have been undertaken
- Reaper “mishaps” (i.e. crashes) happen approximately every 10,000 hours of flying
- There are ‘Fatigue and Psychological stressors’ on personnel operating Reaper
The briefing on Watchkeeper entitled ‘Watchkeeper and Land Forces Operational UAS’ is much more technical and focuses on how Watchkeeper will fit in with other smaller drones such as the Desert Hawk and T-Hawk.
From the presentation it appears that the Watchkeeper in-service date has slipped again (or as the briefing tactfully puts it, the ‘schedule re-programmed to meet current operational requirements’. Watchkeepers will now be deployed to Afghanistan sometime during the first quarter of 2012. While early flight testing of Watchkeeper took place in Israel, there have now been 230 flight of Watchkeeper in the UK, with the longest test flight being 14 hours.