October 5, 2013:
Britain became more enthusiastic about using armed UAVs as its troops in Afghanistan got used to having this kind of air support. Thus in 2012, RAF (Royal Air Force) large UAVs flew 892 missions over Afghanistan and 10 percent of the time these missions resulted in a UAV firing a missile at something it had spotted (or was looking for) on the ground. This was twice as frequently in 2008, when the large UAVs flew a third as many missions. Most of the large UAVs used by Britain in Afghanistan have been American built MQ-9 Reapers.
Britain first sought Reapers in 2007, via an "under urgent operational requirement" deal to support British troops in Afghanistan. The British were pleased with the performance of their Reapers (despite some being lost because of a mechanical failure). A joint U.S.-British task force in Nevada enabled British operators and commanders to quickly absorb the U.S. experience with Reaper and Predator UAVs. Like the Americans, the British find that the "persistence" (long flight time) of these UAVs is a crucial advantage. This capability has put the Taliban at an enormous disadvantage and provided much improved security and offensive capabilities for British forces. The British also find the Reaper a lot more cost effective than other combat support aircraft like the Harrier and AH-64 helicopter gunship.
In 2010, Britain decided to increase its force of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs (to about 25 aircraft). Currently Britain has 9 reapers and is to receive more this year. Since 2009, at least 2 British Reapers have been in Afghanistan at any one time. The first British Reaper entered service in Afghanistan in 2007, and British Reapers have since then spent over 55,000 hours in the air. British Reapers have been armed since 2008. So far British Reapers have used those weapons (usually Hellfire missiles) nearly 400 times. British Reaper crews usually consist of 1 operator (pilot) and 2 sensor operators.
Before the British Reapers arrived in Afghanistan, Britain leased much smaller (.45 ton) Hermes 450 UAVs from Israel. But the larger 4.7 ton Reaper is the preferred aircraft in this department. Each MQ-9 Reaper cost $18 million each (with ground equipment and high end sensors). The American built Reaper has a wingspan of 21 meters (66 feet) and a payload of 1.7 tons. Nearly 200 Reapers are in service, mostly with U.S. forces.
Reaper is considered a combat aircraft because it can carry over a ton of bombs or missiles. This includes the 49 kg (108 pound) Hellfire missile and up to four 228 kg (500 pound) laser or GPS guided JDAM smart bombs. Reapers can carry 4 Hellfires in place of one JDAM. Often, a Hellfire is preferred because it lowers the risk of civilians nearby getting hurt. The UAVs have a major advantage over manned fighter-bombers, in that they can stay over the target area longer and do so with relief crews, so that there are always alert eyes using the powerful sensors (similar to the targeting pods on fighters) carried by the Reaper.
Earlier this year operators of British Reapers have moved to a UAV control center in Britain. For the last 4 years British Reaper operators worked out of the main U.S. Air Force UAV control operation in Nevada, at first as part of a joint U.S./British Reaper unit. This was a convenient and inexpensive way to learn how to operate such a center (where UAVs are operated via satellite link).