Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: present strengths and future capabilities

First UK flight of Watchkeeper UAV | Defence Contracts InternationalIn the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review the Government pledged to invest in a fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in both combat and reconnaissance roles. Here, MOD DCB investigates the present and projected impacts of this UAV investment for the UK Armed Forces.

Globally there has been rapid growth in recent years in the acquisition and development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles(UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, unmanned aerial systems or remotely piloted aircraft. The US General Accounting Office estimates the number of countries with UAVs increased from 41 in 2004 to at least 76 by 2012. According to a report published on the House of Commons website in February this year, as many as 80 countries are now believed to be using drones.

Remotely piloted aircraft, which operate on the same rules of engagement as manned aircraft, range from simple hand-operated short-range systems to long-endurance, high-altitude systems that require an airstrip. They are used primarily for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) or Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions. Only a handful of systems are capable of carrying weapons. Currently the UK Armed Forces’ only weapon-bearing UAV is the Reaper, which is exclusively deployed in Afghanistan.

For the UK Armed Forces, UAVs are likely to have a greater impact on the Royal Air Force than the other Services as they will be used to deliver the RAF’s core function of air power, according to Air Vice-Marshal Jon Lamonte, Chief of Staff, Strategy, Policy & Plans, RAF, who predicts that ‘over time UAVs will progressively become more predominant in the force mix’.


The obvious benefit of using UAVs is the reduced risk to aircrew operating in hostile territories. Drones can also cover roles which are deemed minor or an inconvenience when Armed Forces personnel are needed to carry out more important tasks. Furthermore, they can be more cost-effective and provide a significant ISR capability – whether that is ‘over the hill’ sight for soldiers on the ground or a persistent presence in the air which can help provide a more complex intelligence picture for commanders. Finally, remotely piloted aircraft are far more expendable than manned aircraft – an option that comes with more than a price tag.


The British Army operates four tactical unmanned aircraft in theatre in Afghanistan: the Hermes 450; the mini-size Class 1 Desert Hawk 3; the T-Hawk; and the Black Hornet, a nano aerial rotorcraft. The Army is procuring a new capability – Watchkeeper – which will replace the Hermes 450 when it comes into service. This was agreed in July 2012 between the UK and France, in a bid to cooperate on Watchkeeper and pursue a joint Unmanned Future Combat Air System.

The RAF uses the Reaper, which is the only armed unmanned aerial system operated by the Armed Forces. At present the Royal Navy has no unmanned aircraft in service. However, the Ministry of Defence is running a competition to meet an Urgent Operational Requirement to provide ISR capability for Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which it is anticipated will be met using drones.

Army operated UAVs

The Hermes 450 provides tactical level imagery to unit and formation commanders on the ground in Afghanistan and requires an airstrip to launch. The Desert Hawk is a hand-launched UAV designed to provide ground forces with a live tactical video feed or ‘over the hill’ view for commanders. The T-Hawk provides a ‘hover and stare’ capability and is primarily used by Explosive Ordnance Device operators to examine suspicious vehicles or structures.

 Hornet Nano Helicopter UAVFinally, the Black Hornet is a tiny helicopter (4 inches by 1 inch) with a camera that gives troops video and still images. It is used by soldiers on the battlefield to peer around corners or over walls.

RAF operated UAVs

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper is a medium to high altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft that requires a prepared runway surface for take-off and landing. It is primarily tasked in the Intelligence and Surveillance Awareness role although it can be armed with up to four Hellfire and two Paveway II weapons. It is not an autonomous system and therefore cannot use its weapons unless it is commanded to do so by the flight crew.

At present the UK has five Reaper aircraft deployed in Afghanistan, with a £135 million plan to double that number, There are currently 31 RAF personnel qualified to pilot the Reaper aircraft with plans to train a further 16 RPA pilots by September 2013. The total financial approval for delivering and supporting the UK Reaper system from 2007, when it entered service, until the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2015, is £506 million.

Future capabilities

The MOD identified unmanned aerial vehicles as a capability it intends to invest in, along with Typhoon and the Joint Strike Fighter, as part of its £18.5 billion planned spend on Combat Air over the next ten years, as published in the Defence Equipment Plan 2012.

The new Watchkeeper UAV being procured for the Army will be operated by the Royal Artillery. Fifty-four will be built at a cost of just under £1 billion. Watchkeeper will be delivered through an incremental programme to allow the system to be upgraded.

The MOD is also developing the Scavenger programme, which is expected to be a Class 3 Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system providing theatre-wide persistent ISR. Scavenger will be part of the Core Equipment Programme and come under ISTAR capabilities. It is not expected to enter service until the end of the decade.