[Last updated Feb 2021]
The RAF began using MQ-9 Reaper drones in Afghanistan in October 2007 with the first British drone strike taking place at the end of May 2008. While the drones themselves are located overseas, they are operated by RAF air crew from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and, from April 2013, RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
After a UK Reaper crashed in April 2008, additional Reapers were purchased bringing the number first up to five, and then, in July 2014, to ten. All British Reaper drones were withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014
In October 2014, RAF Reaper drones were deployed for operations against ISIS in Iraq. In August 2015, a British Reaper targeted and killed Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan near Raqqa, in Syria. In December 2015, after a parliamentary vote, use of force against ISIS was extended to Syria. While the UK will not officially confirm where UK Reapers on operations in Iraq and Syria are based, it is believed to be Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait.
In January 2019, the MoD confirmed that one British Reaper was in the US for decommissioning as it had reached the end of its life, reducing the UK’s Reaper fleet to nine.
Since 2019, UK Reapers are also undertaking military operations outside of Operation Shader (the UK’s operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria) but the government is refusing to disclose what the purpose of these sorties is or where they are taking place.
In October 20i5, then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that the UK would double its fleet of armed drones by acquiring the newest version of the Predator drone which General Atomics call ‘SkyGuardian’ but the UK has chosen to name ‘Protector’. The Protector drone is due to be in service with the RAF from around 2024, but initial aircraft are likely to be handed over to the RAF in the US earlier. The company is bringing a SkyGuardian to the UK for trials in summer 2021.
A key difference between the new SkyGuardian/Protector and the Reaper is that it is being built to standards that will allow it to be certified to fly unrestricted in civil airspace. The UK will be the first country to purchase the new aircraft and a key issue will be convincing airspace regulators that it is safe to fly in UK skies.
Read our detailed briefing on Protector.
Watchkeeper is a large unarmed drone operated by the British Army rather than the RAF. It is assigned to the Royal Artillery and its primary purpose is to target in artillery and rocket strikes.
Watchkeeper was built jointly by Thales UK and the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It is based on the Elbit’s Hermes 450 drone. Fifty-four Watchkeepers were built under a £1 billion contract and were originally due to be in service in 2011. Much delayed, a small number of Watchkeepers were deployed to Afghanistan in the final weeks of UK operations there in late 2014. Five Watchkeeper drones have crashed in the UK during testing or training exercises since 2014. A small number of Watchkeepers are currently deployed to Cyprus for training purposes. In 2020, Watchkeeper was used over the English Channel to spot refugees attempting to cross the sea.
Taranis is a demonstrator aircraft jointly funded by the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems. It was unveiled in 2010 and went through a series of flight-tests and trials in Australia.
Taranis has three flight modes: manual, automatic and autonomous. According to BAE Systems, when in automatic flight – the primary mode for take-off, general flying and landing – Taranis is essentially following 3D waypoints. When in autonomous mode, however, the aircraft “starts to think and self-navigate”. “It can self-navigate within a boundary of set constraints,” flight-test engineers told the media. “It does have limitations on what we give it in the mission plan – it can only fly in certain areas – but it does think for itself, it will navigate, and it will search for targets.” The third mode, manual, provides a fail-safe, although this was rarely used during test flights.
Little has been said about Taranis since 2016 other than ‘lessons learned’ from the development of it will feed into future projects such as Tempest (see below). However, it is possible that Taranis or a derivative is being developed in secret.
Tempest / Future Combat Air System (FCAS)
In 2012 and 2014 the UK and France signed agreements and committed funding to develop a new Anglo-French unmanned aircraft, dubbed Future Combat Air System (FCAS). This new drone would be based on Taranis and the European-developed nEUROn. However, seemingly in light of the Brexit decision, in 2017 France signed a deal with Germany to develop a new aircraft and the Anglo-French programme fell by the wayside.
In response, the UK announced that it was developing a new ‘optionally manned’ FCAS project dubbed Tempest. The UK has committed £2 billion since 2018 for the initial phase of the project and is currently cooperating with Italy and Sweden on it, with other potential partners including Saudi Arabia and Japan.
It is still unclear at this stage if Tempest will have an on-board pilot, be controlled from the ground or have both options. In December 2020, an MoD briefing on Tempest said anticipated capabilities include the use of artificial intelligence to assist the pilot, the ability to manage drones in support of the fighter (see Mosquito, below), and ‘all the advancements that came along with previous generation aircraft’ including stealth and data fusion. It is not anticipated that there will be any further financial decision about government spending on Tempest until 2025.
Project Mosquito / Loyal Wingman drone
In July 2019, the MoD announced that the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office had awarded contracts to three companies/consortium to develop a new ‘loyal wingman’ unmanned drone, under a project named ‘Mosquito’.
The idea of such drones is to fly alongside or slightly ahead of larger military aircraft and undertake various tasks including surveillance, electronic warfare, laser-guiding weapons onto targets, or even to carry out air-to-air or air-to-ground strikes. The drones would be controlled by the larger aircraft but have a high degree of autonomy.
In January 2021, the MoD announced that it has awarded a £30m development contract to a team led by Spirit AeroSystems in Belfast to produce a full-scale drone for a test programme beginning in 2023. Mosquito is being developed under the MoD’s Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme.
The MoD is undertaking development work around the use of swarming drones (that is, at least 10 – 20 small drones acting in concert) but much of this is taking place behind closed doors. The then Chief of the Air Staff, Stephen Hillier (now Head of the Civil Aviation Authority) told the Air and Space Power Conference in July 2019 that he was re-forming RAF Squadron 216 to develop drone swarming capability and deliver it to the frontline.
In October 2020, Italian company Leonardo, revealed that it had conducted a live trial of a swarming drones in association with the RAF. During the demo, a number of small, remotely-piloted Callen Lenz drones were equipped with an electronic decoy, allowing each drone to individually deliver a highly-sophisticated jamming effect. In addition, the decoy packages were programmed and navigated to work collaboratively to cause maximum confusion. The company press release – subsequently removed – said “information gained from the demonstration will be used to inform potential future UK programmes to acquire an autonomous swarming drone capability.”
In January 2021 the MoD announced that it had conducted a large-scale demonstration of swarming drones in Cumbria as part of its ‘Many Drones Make Light Work’ programme. The demonstration consisted of five different types and sizes of small fixed-wing drones, with different operational capabilities, together with six different payload types.
Zephyr is a solar-powered, electric, High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) drone ordered by the UK Ministry of Defence but not yet in service. The drone, built by Airbus, is designed to linger at an altitude of about 70,000 feet (21 kilometres) for months at a time for surveillance or to provide a temporary boost to communications. The craft, which has a 25-meter (82-foot) wingspan, weighs 75 kilos (165 pounds) and is hand-launched by three people.
While three aircraft have been ordered at a cost thought to be around £15m, one crashed during a test flight in Australia in March 2019 and a second crash of a Zephyr occurred in September 2019 (although it is not clear if this was a UK ordered system). ‘Lessons learned’ from these crashes were being taken forward in a new test programme, ministers told parliament in August 2020 but that test programme has delayed by Covid-19.
Desert Hawk III
The Desert Hawk III is a battery-powered small drone in service with the British Army. It was developed by Lockheed Martin in 2002 and has been through a number of upgrades.The drone is hand-launched and can fly for around one hour with a radius of around fifteen kilometres. In April 2020 the MoD reported that there were 229 Desert Hawk III drones held by UK armed forces, with around a total of £70 million spent on the system.
Black Hornet is a nano (sometimes called mini) drone that fits in the palm of a hand and weighs less than 200 grams. It has a full-motion video camera and is primarily used by soldiers to explore in and around buildings. It has a range of around 300 metres.
160 were procured in 2013 at a cost of £20 million for use in Afghanistan and then retired in 2017. However in 2019 Gavin Williamson ordered 30 more Black Hornet Mk3 from Norwegian company FLIR Systems at a cost of £1.4 million to further explore the use of Nano drones.
The Puma AE drone is a small, drone designed for land and maritime operations. Each system comprises three air vehicles and two ground stations and can be launched by hand or by a rail system, with the drone capable of landing on water or land. Its primary use is for surveillance and intelligence gathering and is equipped with both electro-optical and infrared cameras, while an under-wing bay allows for additional payloads including communications relay and laser marker systems.
The UK has trialled the system on Royal Navy ships and it is currently deployed with the 300-strong UK Task Group in Mali as part of Operation Newcombe. The drone is just over 4½ft long, with a wingspan of 9ft and weights around 12 lbs and can fly for up to two hours with a top speed of 50 mph.
The DefendTex Drone40 (D40) is a nano UAV/loitering munition in operations with British forces in Mali. The systems can be launched by hand or alternately projected from a grenade launcher. It has a maximum flying time of 60 minutes and maximum range of 12 km according to the manufacturer.
The D40 can carry a small munition but according to officers in Mali, “the version we are using is hand launched and does not include any munitions – it is purely used for surveillance and reconnaissance.”
UAVTek’s ‘Bug’ is a nano-drone weighing 196g – similar to the weight of a smartphone – with 40-minute battery life and a 2km range. In conjunction with BAE Systems, the British Army have bought 30 bug drones to trial.