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The Royal Air Force intends to purchase additional MQ-9 "Reaper" unmanned aircraft from the United States, it has been revealed.

According to a press release from the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency, the UK has applied to buy ten Reaper airframes to add to its initial fleet of three. In addition, the RAF seeks to purchase a large amount of ancillary equipment and support services, including nine complete sets of sensor equipment, five ground control stations, three satcomms terminals and "spares, engineering support, test equipment, ground support, operational flight test support, communications equipment, technical assistance, personnel training/equipment, spare and repair parts, and other related elements of logistics support".

It wasn't clear from the language of the release whether Britain will receive ten unequipped airframes with nine sets of sensor equipment, or ten fully-equipped MQ-9s and a further nine sets of sensor gear. The Reaper's sophisticated multi-spectral telescopic imager and ground scanning moving-target radar account for a major part of its cost. The radar in particular is sophisticated kit, not widely available - especially in lightweight configurations which can be carried by drones.

The UK's upcoming Watchkeeper drone programme is to use I-Master radar to do this job on current plans. ("I-MASTER builds upon Thales' radar expertise that exists in depth in both the UK and France," according to its maker.)

Interestingly, the new Reaper buy is also to include no fewer than 30 H764 combined inertial/GPS navigation systems, but this is probably due to the fact that the MQ-9 boasts "triply redundant avionics" - presumably meaning that each aircraft carries three nav boxes.

The Reaper package seems very comprehensive overall. The American release says that the price, if all options are exercised, could be "as high as $1.071 billion", or £540m. This would be rather a high price for just ten Reapers, putting each one at $100m/£54m. The US forces pay $69m for a four-Reaper "system", including sensors and ground control and such, for a per-aircraft cost of $18m/£9m. Export costs are higher, of course; prices weren't disclosed in the initial UK Reaper buy, but usually reliable sources suggested £20m per bird in that case, a 100 per cent-plus markup.

A 500 per cent hike would seem excessive even for export. However, the possibility that extra sensor sets are involved and the comprehensive training and support options hint that in fact the UK government is buying more than just ten aircraft here. This is backed up by the assertion that no US civil or government personnel will need to move to the UK. It appears that Blighty will get most of the knowledge base and kit required to operate its own, fairly independent MQ-9 capability.

The orginal three British MQ-9s have been operating alongside American ones in Afghanistan since last year. However the RAF, unlike the US forces, does not arm its Reapers; preferring thus far to use them solely as sensor platforms. ®

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