> our title:

Cost of UK Reaper UAVs Questioned

> original title:

A Grim Reaper We Cannot Afford (excerpt)

(Source: Daily Mail Forbes blog; posted Oct. 31, 2012)


“The Ministry of Defence today confirmed that it is to double the number of RAF drones in Afghanistan and begin operating the aircraft from the UK for the first time.

“British forces will now be able to call on ten MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). While the drones have always been operated by RAF crews at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the new batch of five will be flown by pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

“Tonight the MoD said plans to boost the number of Reaper, initially announced in December 2010, represented an increased investment of £135 million.”


Yes, okay, you read this last week, so it’s old news — but did you note that figure of £135 million as the “increased investment”? Do we now have ten Reapers costing £13.5 million each? If that is true, are we getting our money’s worth? (Not really – see note at bottom—Ed)

We’ve been told that the Reaper and her sisters represent the “future of warfare”, that we shall be able to kill the bad guys without putting our own good guys at risk. Do you believe this? The pilots and sensor operators may be sitting safely in their comfortable armchairs at home, but how safe are the infantrymen trudging along the track that is being watched from so far away? Will those sharp eyes in Lincolnshire see the men lying in ambush in Helmand, or the surface disturbance revealing a possible IED, or the preparations of the motorcycle suicide bomber? And among the shadows they recognise as men, will they distinguish between the good guys and the bad?

A few weeks ago the watching Reaper engaged on Persistent Surveillance above Camp Bastion failed to detect Toyota pickups entering a proscribed area on their way to invading the UK’s most important base in Afghanistan, with the result that a US Marine Corps Close Air Support squadron was taken out of the American battle order with its Commanding Officer dead, six Harriers totally destroyed, and two more Harriers so seriously damaged they have been airfreighted back to America.

There is a lot to be learnt from that episode, and the first lesson is that failure can be very expensive (but we knew this anyway, having lost a couple of Harriers of our own to a cheap and cheerful rocket fired from the other side of the perimeter fence at Kandahar).

The second lesson is that Reapers and Predators and, if they ever arrive, Watchkeepers (four years late now, it is said), do not do Persistent Surveillance, only Intermittent Snapshots whose interpretation is slow.

The third lesson, not so obvious until the numbers are totalled, is that Reapers are expensive not only to buy but also to operate.

When the MoD buys five Reapers for the RAF, it is buying four plus one reserve, and those four form a Combat Air Patrol (CAP), the basic tactical unit. Now a lot of tricks can be played with figures, and it is not possible to guess what the Americans are charging the MoD for the support, but if just their own calculations are used, and there is no ‘foreign customer’ premium, then each RAF Reaper, paying its own share of development and all the other costs that are added into the mix at this stage will need £20 million each, £80 million per 4-Reaper CAP. And remember, that is based on what the Americans are charging themselves.

Then we have the cost of two ground stations, one in Lincolnshire and one at the distant airfield, and the satellite links. Yes, it’s high-tech, certainly, of course it is, and there is a high price to pay for high-tech, we know, but do we have to pay it when such expensive high-tech isn’t necessary, and isn’t doing what was expected anyway? (end of excerpt)


Click here for the full story, on the Daily Mail website.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: The author appears to have misread the MoD’s announcement. In fact, it is the “boost” in the number of Reapers, from five to 10, that requires “an increased investment of £135 million.” Ergo, the cost of adding five Reapers is £135 million, so the cost per aircraft is actually £27 million, and not £13.5 million, although to be fair this is not the fly-away price, as it also includes the cost of ground stations and support equipment.

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