The cost to the UK of buying a new fleet of armed Reaper UAVs from General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) appears to have increased from earlier estimates. As notified to the U.S. Congress last week, the sale is worth an estimated $1 billion for 16 Certifiable Predator B (CPB) airframes plus ground control stations (GCS) and sensors. The Royal Air Force (RAF) is planning a major expansion of its medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV force. Contract negotiations continue; the sale has not yet been concluded.
The RAF already operates 10 uncertified MQ-9 Reapers in two squadrons with 39 crews; it was the first foreign nation to acquire the groundbreaking MALE system in 2008, having previously co-manned U.S. Air Force MQ-9 squadrons since 2004. The RAF has operated them over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It will now become the first operator of the CPB, which GA-ASI has been developing with company funds, since no U.S. requirement for a MALE that can operate in non-segregated airspace has emerged.
The sale will include options for an additional 10 airframes; eight of GA-ASI’s newlydeveloped advanced Ground Control Stations (with an option for four more); four new Launch and Recovery Element (LRE GCS) plus an upgrade to two of the RAF’s existing LRE GCS and an option to upgrade two more. The UK is also buying improved versions of the same sensors that are fitted to its current Reapers: the Raytheon Multispectral Targeting System (MTS, 14 plus an option for 11 more) and the GA-ASI Lynx Block 20A Synthetic Aperture Radar and Ground Moving Target Indicator (SAR/GMTI, also 14 plus an option for 11 more). The UK buys weapons for its Reapers separately: AGM-114 Hellfire missiles; GBU-12 laser-guided 500-pound bombs; and GBU-38 JDAMs. The RAF also wants to integrate the MBDA Brimstone missileand has been offered a version of the DB-110 reconnaissance sensor pod by UTA Aerospace Systems. Both equipments have already been test-flown on Reapers in the U.S.
A senior RAF officer noted recently that, compared with the service’s current Reapers, the CPB will have greater range and payload; automatic takeoff and landing; and the capability to operate in some bad weather conditions, and in UK airspace. He said that the service is currently increasing the number of crews from 39 to 50. They are based at the LRE GCS in Ali-Al Salem airbase, Kuwait; and in the UK’s two satcom-linked GCS for mission control at RAF Waddington in the UK and Creech AFB in the US. A recentlyretired senior RAF officer said recently that the service is aiming for a total of 100 aircrews to operate the CPBs, and the Reapers, if retained.