UK’s new Reaper drones remain grounded, months before Afghan withdrawal

An RAF Reaper pilot based at Creech Air Force base, Nevada (Photo: Defence Images)

Five new Reaper drones announced by David Cameron in December 2010 to support British troops in Afghanistan are still not yet in operation, the Bureau can reveal.

The new drones were bought as an urgent purchase and were part of a £135m package intended to effectively double the size of the UK’s fleet of armed drones in Afghanistan, and its surveillance capacity. But more than three years after the purchase was announced, and with just months to go before the UK’s troops are due to leave the conflict, the additional Reapers are yet to take to the skies.

The delay has meant that British armed forces have had to cope without what then-defence secretary Liam Fox called a ‘significant increase in air surveillance’ that would help protect front-line troops from threats such as roadside bombs.

‘Approximately £100m of taxpayers’ money has been used to purchase equipment that may never be used in Afghanistan’
– Tom Watson MP

News of the delay comes after a report by MPs on the defence select committee, published in March, found that lengthy delays in the £1bn development of the Watchkeeper surveillance drone, commissioned in 2005, meant that it was unlikely to be used in operations in Afghanistan. The aircraft was originally predicted to be operational by 2010. The committee’s report called on the MoD to explain the delays.

Labour MP and former defence minister Tom Watson told the Bureau: ‘“Urgent Operational Requirements” are meant to be used for emergencies in combat zones. This revelation, that approximately £100m of taxpayers’ money used has been used to purchase equipment that may never be used in Afghanistan, is a scandal at a time when service personnel are being made redundant.’

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The expansion of Britain’s armed drone fleet has been in the works a long time: in December 2010 David Cameron announced a plan to double the UK’s Reaper capacity, including the purchase of five new aircraft and three ground control stations. Reaper is produced by US defence company General Atomics.

But the manufacturing was delayed because the demands of the US Air Force, which was ordering multiple additional Reapers of its own, took precedence over the British order, a defence spokesman told the Bureau.

Delays of this kind are ‘endemic’ in defence procurement, the official added: deliveries of the A400M transport aircraft, ordered around 18 months ago, have also been delayed, although in contrast a C17 aircraft was delivered speedily.

Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which has been highly critical of MOD procurement in the past, said the Bureau’s revelation ‘beggars belief’.

‘This appears to be another procurement shambles that has let down our troops. The question the MoD needs to explain is what they intend to do with these aircraft now,’ she said.

The new Reapers were expected to be operational by 2013, but have also suffered hardware and software setbacks.

The aircraft completed their testing phase in the US by February, and have now been delivered to Afghanistan. There, they are being rebuilt and tested, and are expected to start flying missions in the ‘near future’, an MoD spokesman told the Bureau.

‘A late notice engineering change to the new production aircraft did delay the completion of acceptance testing. That work is now complete and delivery of the five new aircraft to the UK MOD is complete,’ the spokesman added.

The UK’s drone fleet has been further hampered by one of its five operational Reapers recently being out of action for ‘corrective maintenance’. This was originally revealed to campaign group Drone Wars UK in a Freedom of Information response issued in March.

A defence spokesman told the Bureau the US Air Force has loaned the RAF one of its Reapers to cover the shortfall.

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The delay means that new aircraft may see just a few months’ service in Afghanistan. The MoD has yet to announce where it will deploy the aircraft after withdrawal from the conflict. Air Vice Marshal Phil Osborn told trade paper Aviation Week in January: ‘We have every intention of continuing to use Reaper beyond Afghanistan. You will see us plan to bring Reaper more into an expeditionary rather than deployed mode, and over the next few years we will shift from Reaper into the Scavenger [surveillance] program.’

Last month Michael Clarke, director of respected military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), told the Bureau’s podcast that the UK’s Reaper fleet could be used in Kenya or Somalia.

Although Nato troops are due to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the US is in negotiations with the government over whether it will continue to have a small counter-terrorism and training force – which is likely to include drones. The discussions are currently paused for the Afghan elections.

The UK is one of three countries, alongside the US and Israel, that is known to have carried out bombings with unmanned aircraft. Since 2007, British-piloted Reaper drones, manufactured by US firm General Atomics, have carried out over 300 drone strikes in Afghanistan, where they are used alongside more traditional aerial and ground-based weapons.

Research by the Bureau has found that British and US drones have carried out over 1,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan. Although the UK has been operating a fleet of just five Reapers – a fraction the size of the US’s armed drone fleet – British-piloted drones have carried out a significant proportion of all strikes.

In addition to flying British-owned Reapers, RAF pilots also conduct flights in US-owned drones. Pilots embedded in US units have carried out almost 2,000 missions since 2006 under a long-running secondment scheme. In an FOI response to Drone Wars UK, the MoD declined to reveal how many strikes have been carried out by embedded troops. Meanwhile British pilots ‘borrowed’ US drones because no British drones were available on 271 occasions since 2006, the FOI response showed.

Only a tiny proportion of Reaper flights result in drone strikes – defence officials stress that they are used far more frequently for intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance in support of troops on the ground. A Ministry of Defence spokesman told the Bureau that British Reapers had flown more than 50,000 hours.

In February a report on civilian casualties by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) found that the number of non-combatants killed by drones in the previous year had tripled to 45. Neither Unama, the international military forces, or the US government routinely specify which force caused civilian casualties. The MoD insists that a single British drone strike has killed civilians, when four passengers in a vehicle died in a March 2011 attack in Helmand, with defence secretary Philip Hammond emphasising this fact in a Guardian op-ed last December.

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