British officials move to boost public perception of remotely piloted aircraft as fleets grow
With its unmanned aerial vehicles supporting troops in Afghanistan, the U.K. Defense Ministry is also trying to fight a battle against public perception back home.
As one of a handful of nations flying armedUAVs, the U.K. has found its efforts blighted by associations with the U.S. armed services and intelligence agency operations striking at suspected terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere, perceived breaches of international law and sentiment that aircraft like the Reaper and the soon-to-be-introduced Watchkeeper system are technologies out of control.
Officers are trying to urge the use of the term “remotely piloted” instead of unmanned or drone, fighting back against criticism from antiwar campaigners.
“The reason we don't like the term 'drone' is it paints a picture of technology that is out of control,” said Air Vice Marshal Phil Osborn, director of capability at the U.K.'s Joint Forces Command, here last week. “Air crews receive training on a regular basis, on international law and the rules of engagement; they can pick up the telephone and request legal advice 24 hours a day. These are things you cannot do when you when you are flying in a manned aircraft.”
This war on words comes at a time when the U.K.'s investment in UAVs is beginning to bear fruit.
Theis preparing to take delivery of five more Reapers, doubling the size of the fleet. Software upgrades to the latest batch have slowed deliveries, but officers say the aircraft should be delivered to the Afghan theater in about three months. Although the type is officially due to exit service at the end of combat operations in Afghanistan because it was funded as an as urgent operational requirement, RAF officers have widely expressed their wish to keep it as a core capability.
“We have every intention of continuing to use Reaper beyond Afghanistan,” said Osborn. “You will see us plan to bring Reaper more into an expeditionary rather than deployed mode, and over the next few years we will shift from Reaper into the Scavenger program.”
Scavenger is a long-running U.K. Defense Ministry requirement for a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV for intelligence gathering.
The U.K. has made a heavy investment in the Reaper program. Two squadrons are flying the aircraft, 39 Sqdn. remains embedded with the U.S. Air Force at Creech AFB, Nev., while 13 Sqdn. is operating the UAVs from here, where two ground-control stations (GCS) have been set up in a secure section of a hangar. Slots for three more GCS are available for 39 Sqdn. to use when it moves back to the U.K. after combat operations in Afghanistan have ended. The RAF plans to maintain a close relationship with theReaper force, however, by maintaining a small presence at Creech as well as at Holloman AFB, N.M., where the RAF has two crews instructing students on the MQ-9 system.
The British Army is eagerly awaiting the introduction of the much-delayed Watchkeeper system, whose entry into service has been slowed partly by the U.K.'s newly established safety body, the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), which raised concerns about the program's safety. But senior officers believe critical lessons learned from flying leasedplatforms in the Lydian program in Afghanistan have helped to work bugs out of the system, potentially allowing the signing off of a release to service document in the spring.
“Confidence is growing and we are looking to achieve an interim release to service in the next quarter,” says Lt. Col. Craig Palmer, leader of the British Army's UAV programs. “All the indicators show we are heading in the right direction.”
Harsh but valuable experience was gained from the loss of the Hermes 450 ZK515 at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan in October 2011. Following the accident, a board of inquiry recommended significant improvements in UAV pilot training and awareness of complex airspace. Since the crash, the Hermes 450 fleet has flown 30,000 hr. without incident, and the Royal Artillery, which will operate the Watchkeeper fleet now, has a cadre of personnel with a multitude of deployments under their belts.
In October 2013, the Watchkeeper system was awarded a Statement of Type Design Assurance by the MAA, indicating that it has met “an acceptable level for design safety and integrity.” The next step is for the aircraft to be awarded an interim release to service, which will allow Army crews to begin training, flying sorties in segregated airspace around the Salisbury Plain, and operating from Boscombe Down test airfield there.