Purchasing the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAV has transformed the U.K. Royal Air Force's understanding of remotely piloted air operations.

But even though the RAF is preparing the ground to absorb a further five Reapers into its inventory in the coming months, as an urgent operational requirement (UOR) purchased to support theater operations in Afghanistan, officially the Reaper's career with the RAF is due to end when combat troops leave the country in late 2014.

Commanders face some tough challenges in the coming year. Several billion pounds have been spent over the last decade on new equipment purchased as UORs for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, paid for from the U.K. Treasury's special reserve, a fund that helps cover military operations. But if commanders wish to keep the equipment beyond the end of combat operations, the systems must be taken into the core budget of the defense ministry—a budget that was previously considered a black hole but has since been balanced by officials. The budget has £8 billion ($12 billion) earmarked for new programs, potentially including those that commanders are keen to retain after Afghanistan.

But Reaper faces competition from aircraft such as the Beechcraft Shadow R1 used to support special forces in-theater and the Sentinel, which despite not being purchased as a UOR may also be retired post-Afghanistan.

The RAF was involved in U.S. Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle operations long before the introduction of the Reaper, with crews flying the MQ-1 Predator. The RAF flew its first Reaper mission in Afghanistan just one month after the USAF and quickly became highly skilled in the use of its systems such as synthetic aperture radar. With more than 45,000 flight hours under their belts, RAF Reaper crews have accrued a great deal of experience, which could be lost if the Reaper capability was retired.

Yet, with just over a year of Reaper operations left, the RAF is continuing to invest in the platform. Ground control operations have now begun from RAF Waddington, allowing the service to take advantage of the 4-hr. time difference between the U.K. and Afghanistan. The RAF retains a single squadron, No. 39, at Creech AFB, Nev., where it continues to work closely with the USAF Reaper community.

Further investment is being made in the Reaper's complement of weaponry. The USAF recently confirmed it will conduct trials of MBDA's Brimstone missile to integrate the weapon onto the aircraft. The aircraft was purchased under the Foreign Military Sales program, therefore the U.S. government has the role of integrating the weapon rather than the customer.

First trials for the weapon are expected to take place this fall and military sources say they want the results “quickly,” which suggests the RAF would like to use the weapon in Afghanistan.

Senior RAF officers point out that putting Brimstone on the Reaper would ensure that the U.K. has a locally available source of a proven weapon for the aircraft, rather than having to rely on stocks of Lockheed Martin's Hellfire. Brimstone has many characteristics of the Hellfire, and is built inside what is virtually the same airframe. With its dual-mode guidance, using both laser and millimetric seeker, the weapon can be used in a fire-and-forget mode with salvoes offering the ability to attack more than one target. The weapon was used to great effect in Libya during Operation Unified Protector where it was fired from RAF Panavia Tornado GR4s, currently the only aircraft in the U.K. inventory capable of firing the weapon.

Of course, this extra investment does not guarantee the future of the aircraft is assured, after all, the U.K. defense ministry had just completed modernizations of both the Jaguar and Harrier fleets when both types were retired in 2007 and 2011, respectively.

“The Reapers give the RAF capabilities now that have been pushed to the right in terms of funding,” says Douglas Barrie, fellow for aerospace research with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Barrie points to the retirement of the Canberra PR9 reconnaissance aircraft and the planned retirement of the Tornado and its Raptor recon pod, a system which has proved its worth in Afghanistan.

“With Reaper, the RAF has all these capabilities now, replacing it with a new platform would have to be done pretty fast,” adds Barrie.

If kept, the system could form the basis of the U.K.'s Scavenger program, but it could be long time before Reapers could be operated in the U.K.

RAF officers say that the disconnect between pilot and machine means much of the training could be simulated and that the Reapers could be simply stored, awaiting their next deployment.