HAS THE RAF WON THE UAV BATTLE?
By Julian Nettlefold, Editor, BATTLESPACE
07 Jan 08. Reports in Defense News by Andrew Chuter that Britain is set to spend more than $1bn to buy 10 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs confirmed by the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), reawakens the long debate of the RAF’s long-held wish to dominate the UAV segment of the British Armed Forces.
As long ago as the Defence Systems International Exhibition of 1998, there was a lot of debate about the forthcoming Watchkeeper Requirement to replace the ageing Royal Artillery Phoenix UAVs. The RAF stressed right from the start that, as UAVs are an air element that it should control the specifications and operating procedure, particularly for larger UAVs when they operate in conjunction with fast jets, from RAF-run facilities. Indeed one of the main reasons for the long delay in the deployment of the Watchkeeper Hermes air vehicles was the need to upgrade the control systems to provide 24/7 operational capability, autoland and de-icing systems. The original Hermes 450s required a soldier to land the aircraft using a box with an antennae and line–of-sight. The failure to supply the smaller Hermes 350 meant that all the Watchkeeper aircraft had to be deployed from RAF facilities with hard runways. As part of this requirement the RAF also required greater training for the operators.
The article said that a Jan. 3 announcement by the agency said that it had notified Congress late last month of the sale, which would be part of a Foreign Military Sales deal with London.
“The U.K. has requested a possible sale of 10 MQ-9 UAVs and five ground control
stations,” along with a long list of sensors, test, training and other
equipment, the DSCA said. “The total value if all options are exercised, could
be as high as $1.07bn.” Notification of the possible sale is required by U.S. law. The Royal Air Force already has two Reapers on order from General Atomics as part of an urgent operational requirement to provide persistent ISTAR capabilities for British forces fighting in southern Afghanistan.
An MoD spokeswomen said she was unaware of planned delivery dates for the additional Reapers if the deal is approved. “They are an essential asset, though, and we would like to get them as quickly as possible,” she said.
Sir Glenn Torpy, air chief marshal, the chief of the Air Staff here, has been saying for months that his aspiration was for the Reaper fleet to initially grow to 12 vehicles.
The article went on to say that, ‘Analysts here were surprised at the size and timing of the potential order. Britain’s overstretched defense budget is expected to see cuts to equipment
programs and capabilities of about £1.5bn($3bn) a year for at least three years.’
But this announcement also comes at a time when the final decision on the signature for the Tranche 3 Typhoon contract is being discussed. (See: BATTLESPACE UPDATE Vol.9 ISSUE 47, 27 Nov 2007, DEFENCE PROCUREMENT ISSUES WILL IMPINGE ON TYPHOON TRANCHE 3). At that briefing, Chief of Defence Procurement, Sir Kevin O’Donoghue said that discussions were in progress with all partners as to the eventual size and timing of Tranche 3.
Does this announcement on Reaper suggest that a quid pro quo has been reached to transfer some of the Tranche 3 budget to a Reaper purchase which would reinforce the RAF’s fleet of UAVs and thus its dominance of the technology?
This could diminish the grandiose scale of the Watchkeeper project, which some sources suggest is till struggling to meet schedules. Thales UK completed the critical design review last year and is now preparing for the manufacturing stage, with an expected in-service date of 2010.
Defense News said that a Thales spokeswomen refuted any suggestion Watchkeeper might be a victim of Reaper spending, saying the program is “on track, on budget and we have seen no suggestion of any changes to the program.”
The Reaper decisions should not mean that W