January 2, 2016:
In late 2015 Britain revealed that their Reaper UAVs in Iraq had carried out over 230 missile attacks since November 2014 and killed at least 300 Islamic terrorists. The Reapers have flown many more reconnaissance and surveillance missions. While Britain is quite pleased with the performance of their American built Reapers they have also begun using a British made Watchkeeper UAV as well.
Britain firs ordered Reapers in 2007, via an "under urgent operational requirement" deal, to support British troops in Afghanistan. The British were very pleased with the performance of their Reapers. British operators were sent to the U.S. Air Force to work alongside U.S. Reaper operators and were able to quickly absorb the U.S. experience with these UAVs. In 2010, Britain decided to increase its force of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to about 25 aircraft. Currently Britain has ten Reapers (one crashed) and deliveries continue. The first British Reaper entered service in Afghanistan in 2007 and they were armed 2008. As more Watchkeepers enter service the Reaper purchases will be reduced. If Watchkeeper proves to be a complete bust then Reaper will continue to be the main British large UAV.
The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations. Thus after their use in Afghanistan the RAF (Royal Air Force) took control of the British Reapers and several of these are now being used against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The army retains the smaller Watchkeeper and Hermes UAVs.
In October 2015 Britain finally overcame opposition by civil aviation bureaucrats and was allowed to fly military UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in Britain. Just once. As a test. This was a major breakthrough because such restrictions in Europe have severely limited development and use of military UAVs. For example the British military has been developing Watchkeeper UAV since 2006 but has not been able to use it in Britain. This aircraft is based on the Israeli Hermes and is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles for support of troops in Afghanistan. This UAV is already designed to carry two extra fuel tanks under its wings. Each of these fuel tanks weighs more than the 50 kg (110 pound) Hellfire missile. The Watchkeeper is 6.5 meters (20 feet) long and has an 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). The Hermes 450 is the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces, and twenty or more were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
As of late 2015 Britain had received 33 of the 54 Watchkeepers ordered but did not have any pilots for them. That’s because doubts about getting permission to fly in Britain (at least in civilian air space) caused the training program to be put on hold. But since late 2015 the training is underway but it will take two years to produce 24 Watchkeeper operators and eventually a hundred will be needed to handle a force of 54 Watchkeepers. There are about half a dozen Watchkeeper operators, but these are trainers. Meanwhile Britain does have nearly a decade of experience using large UAVs (like Watchkeeper, Predator and Reaper), mainly in Afghanistan. The operators were trained in the United States initially and later in Britain. Most of the training can be done on simulators and British operators in training can practice in UAVs flying in the United States because the Predator and Reaper use a satellite link to communicate with the operator. Three Watchkeepers were sent to Afghanistan in 2014 and performed well.