Military’s crucial ‘eye in the sky’

To the casual observer, Britain’s most sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicle looks rather like a large, white model aeroplane.

But its sleek exterior hides the deadly capabilities beneath. It is one of Britain’s most crucial intelligence weapons, and is playing an increasingly vital role on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

These roving eyes in the sky are becoming an indispensable tool for the British military, able to detect snipers or insurgents planting the deadly roadside bombs that have become one of the biggest threats to forces on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as one of the UK’s main weapons in hunting down Taleban or Al Qaeda operatives.

Soon, Britain’s Reapers may also be able to shoot down their targets, rather than simply locate and identify them.

‘Major milestone’

I encountered one of Britain’s Reaper MQ-9 UAVs in Afghanistan last December, shortly after its first operational flight there in October 2007.

The rapid acquisition of three Reapers for the Royal Air Force (RAF) was deemed “a major milestone” by the UK’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, which he said would “significantly enhance” the UK’s surveillance and reconnaissance capability in Afghanistan.

An RAF pilot based in Afghanistan takes care of the take-off and landing, but the UAV itself is flown for most of its mission by RAF pilots operating Reaper remotely via satellite link from a distance of 11,000km (7,000 miles) away, from the US Air Force’s Creech airbase in Nevada.

Infographic, BBC

The pilot and an observer sit at computer screens, seeing what the plane sees through its cameras and sensors. One computer screen shows navigational data, another what the plane sees, while a third screen provides operational data.

Some 44 RAF crew also help fly the American Predator surveillance aircraft from their base in the Nevada desert. Reaper was originally known as Predator B, a larger turbo-prop powered version of the original Predator.

Reaper is not, however, a cheap option. It costs around £5m per plane, but the price of back-up services brings the total bill for three to some £50m. And earlier this year, one of the UK’s three Reapers came down in the Afghan desert thanks to a technical fault, and had to be destroyed to keep its secrets from the enemy.

Future capabilities

For now, Britain’s Reapers are unarmed and used only for reconnaissance, though they are due to be fitted with missiles for attacks – as the US Predators already are – very soon.

The “eyeballs” – the rotating sensors strapped to the nose – offer an extremely high-quality video feed, which can show clearly from 4,600m (15,000ft) what an insurgent is doing.

The video is streamed back live to the controllers’ computer screens as they are flown remotely from the US.

The ground control stations send their commands to Reaper via a fibre-optic link to a satellite relay station in Europe, which bounces them into space and back down to the aircraft.

Last year the RAF requested 10 Reapers, made by General Atomics, which could cost up to £250m with their associated equipment.

Novel role

However, it’s believed the request has been turned down in the current Ministry of Defence (MoD) planning round, though the RAF is sure to continue asking to enlarge its fleet.

The unmanned vehicles may be costly, but they are far less costly in terms of lives if shot down or lost.

Britain suffered one of its worst ever losses of life in September 2006, when a Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft exploded in mid-air over Kandahar in Afghanistan, killing all 14 servicemen on board.

A coroner recently ruled that the current Nimrod fleet was unsafe, something the MoD disputes. However, its replacement – the Nimrod MRA4 – will not be ready for several years, perhaps offering an ever-more vital role for UAVs.

They are also slightly more environmentally friendly. Thanks to their light weight and big wings, they burn just 11kg (25lbs) of fuel per hour, compared with an F-16’s 2,500kg (5,500lb).

In addition to its current “hunter-killer” role, the US Air Force (USAF) plans to equip some of its own Reapers as signals intelligence aircraft – capable of detecting mobile telephone signals, as well as signals emitted by surface-to-air missile batteries – which would bring Reaper’s intelligence capabilities a little closer to those of the Nimrod.

By Caroline Wyatt BBC defence corresp

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