Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/17/reaper_droid_slash/

UK's Reaper wardroid imports slashed in budget pinch

Pricey domestic buy strangely unaffected

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 17th March 2008 15:31 GMT

Treasury financial difficulties would seem likely to severely restrict the size of Britain's fleet of "Reaper" aerial wardroid-assassins in the near future, according to reports.

US clearance was obtained last year for export sales of a further ten Reaper/Predator-B robot spyplane-bombers to the UK, in addition to the three already bought. British forces, operating jointly with the US Predator/Reaper fleet, are already putting the unmanned aeroplanes to good use in Afghanistan, and it is understood that operational commanders would like more of this capability.

However, the Reapers are imported from America as a so-called "urgent operational requirement (UOR)", a fast-track method of MoD kit purchasing. UORs often make use of "conflict resolution" funding supplements given on top of the ordinary defence budget for waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the UK national budget now under significant strain following worsening economic forecasts and recent financial-sector blows to the public purse, it is generally believed that the ongoing MoD funding crisis will get worse. In particular, the Treasury will be looking to trim the "conflict resolution" expenses, which are used not only to buy urgent-priority kit like the Reaper but to pay for the Skynet satellite bandwidth the machines need in such profusion.

This is especially depressing for the forces, as the UOR scheme is typically the main way for them to obtain the equipment they actually need, quickly and from suppliers who might deliver at a fair price. Examples include the recent almost-total re-equipping of British ground troops with new body armour, nightvision equipment and a panoply of new infantry weapons. Where necessary, these have been bought from overseas rather than waiting for British industry to spend years reinventing the wheel at vast expense.

Another example, of course, is the original three Reapers, currently being used as unarmed spyplanes - though the MoD hopes to arm them soon. A batch of smaller Hermes 450 spy drones has also lately been bought from Israel. Robot surveillance platforms are in constant demand for the counterinsurgency fighting so common nowadays (and which has in fact been common since at least 1945, but is nonetheless a perennial surprise to the military establishment).

Now, however, it appears that any further UK Reapers are probably on hold. It goes without saying that the current setup of a UK domestic drone industry at MoD expense - lightly camouflaged as a buy of "Watchkeeper" drones - will continue.

Once the UK has a drone industry, of course, the British forces will probably not be allowed to buy Reapers ever again. ®