December 12, 2010: Britain is going to double its force of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs (to about 25), and is buying at least a dozen more. It was only four years ago that Britain decided to deploy a force of Reapers. Since last year, at least two British Reapers have been in Afghanistan at any one time. The first British Reaper entered service in Afghanistan three years ago, and have, since then, spent over 15,000 hours in the air. For the last two years, British Reapers have been armed with Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. Meanwhile, Britain is leasing Predator size Hermes 450 UAVs from Israel,while building its own version. But the larger Reaper is the preferred aircraft in this department.
Each MQ-9 Reaper cost $18 million each (with ground equipment and high end sensors). The 4.7 ton American built Reaper has a wingspan of 21 meters/66 feet and a payload of 1.7 tons. Also called the "Predator B", several dozen are currently 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 hundred pound Hellfire missile, and up to four 228 kg (500 pound) laser or GPS guided smart bombs. Reapers can carry four Hellfires in place of one JDAM. Often, a Hellfire is preferred because of 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.
Britain first bought Reapers via an "under urgent operational requirement deal" to support British troops in Afghanistan. The operators of British Reapers work out of an American air force base in Nevada, as part of a joint U.S./British Reaper unit. The British are very pleased with the performance of their Reapers (despite some being lost because of a mechanical failure). The joint task force in Nevada enables British operators and commanders to quickly absorb the U.S. experience with Reaper and Predator. Like the Americans, the British find that the "persistence" (long flight time) of Reaper a crucial advantage. This capability has put the Taliban at an enormous disadvantage, and much improved the security, and offensive capabilities, for British forces. The British also find the Reaper a lot more cost effective than other combat aircraft like the Harrier and AH-64 helicopter gunship.