Murphy's Law: The RAF Refits With Robots


May 23, 2011: The latest round of defense cuts in Britain is shutting down a lot of RAF (Royal Air Force) squadrons. But some squadrons, while shut down, have their identity transferred to an entirely new type of aircraft unit. A very unique type of aircraft. Thus the 13 Fighter Squadron is retiring its Tornado fighter-bombers, and dispersing nearly all its personnel to other units. But the name of the squadron is being attached to a new unit that operates Reaper UAVs. This will be the RAF's second Reaper squadron. The RAF wants more of these robotic (some of the time) aircraft.

The Reaper has been a big success in Afghanistan. While the Tornado is a 28 ton jet fighter, that can carry up to nine tons of bombs and missiles, the MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meter/36 foot long propeller driven aircraft with a 21.3 meter/66 foot wingspan that looks like the older, and more famous, MQ-1 Predator. The much larger Reaper 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, designed to replace some functions of F-16s or A-10s or, in this case, Tornados. The UAVs also replace the crew. There were two people in each Tornado, there are none in the Reaper (the operators work out of a U.S. Air Force base in the United States, while the ground crews are where the aircraft are).

While 13 Squadron, which was formed in 1915, got a new job, many older squadrons are now just gone. Another Tornado unit, 111 Fighter Squadron, a 94 year old unit, is no more. The oldest squadron to be disbanded in the current round of cuts is 1 Squadron. This one was flying Harrier jets, a model that was completely retired in Britain recently. The unique thing about 1 Squadron is that it traces its origins back to 1878, with the formation of the 1st Balloon Company. In 1912, this unit was re-designated the 1st Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (later to be the RAF, or Royal Air Force). Thus does an aerial squadron, whose history spans three centuries, disappear from service.

Some of these disbanded squadrons may yet return with UAVs. These unmanned aircraft tend to be much cheaper (less than a third what a jet fighter costs) and are built to spend more time in the air. Then there is a new generation of UAVs coming, jet powered ones that are to replace fighters, as well as bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. These will also be cheaper (by 50 percent or more) than manned equivalents. Cheaper (to build and operate) UAVs allow the RAF to have more aircraft, and more squadrons, in service.



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