A Reaper unmanned combat aircraft has crashed in Afghanistan. According to reports, restricted technology aboard the wrecked roboplane was salvaged by British special forces and the remains were then destroyed by a bomb from a manned jet.
The Sun reported yesterday that "a £50m British spy plane" had been "blown to bits" after crashlanding while flying in support of a special forces mission. The Currant Bun's sources said the Reaper had suffered an "engine flame out", and that "top secret gear, including a high-intensity camera and computer memory chips" had been recovered by a helicopter-borne team of SBS* men before an RAF Harrier was called in to destroy the five-tonne wreck.
The MoD confirmed today that a Reaper had been lost, issuing this statement:
We can confirm that on 9 April 2008, a Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicle made a forced landing whilst on an operation over a remote unpopulated area of southern Afghanistan. Sensitive items were recovered and the remaining wreckage was destroyed. The reason for the forced landing is under investigation, however mechanical issues are suspected. We cannot comment on the cost of a single Reaper for commercial reasons. However, this platform should cost less than £10m to replace.
The UK Reaper fleet is now presumably reduced to two - just three having been procured. It is understood that the forces find the Reapers extremely useful and would like to get more, but the "conflict resolution" Treasury topup funds used to buy the aircraft are under great pressure. Rumour suggests that further purchases are on hold. (It is extremely difficult to use the core defence budget for buying imported equipment like the Reaper.) Thus far, the UK Reaper fleet - unlike the Americans' - has been unarmed, though this is apparently set to change.
The MoD replacement-cost figure for the Reaper is an interesting one indeed, suggesting the UK would be able to buy Reapers from this point at £10m each. Rather than doing so, it is instead developing Watchkeeper drones based on Israeli and French kit for no less than £17m each.
The Watchkeepers, despite costing 70 per cent more than a Reaper, are not in the same league. They are half-tonne machines compared to the Reaper's five tonnes, and as a result they cannot be armed. The Watchkeeper will also lack satcomms, severely limiting its range unless a second aircraft is used for relay purposes.
(According to defence sources, this is largely because the UK military's new Skynet 5 comms sats, owned by private industry, charge the forces on a pay-as-you-go basis - and there isn't enough cash to buy bandwidth for any large number of drones.)
The UK armed forces will pay more to get less for the same old reasons: to channel pork to UK contractors and generate jobs in new UK factories which will probably need - and get - taxpayer support forever.
It would be nice to think that at least this will mean Blighty being able to make and support its own drones, but this is not true - Watchkeeper is dependent on parts and knowhow from (at the very least) France and Israel. Indeed, the first Watchkeeper prototype recently made its first flight - in Israel, of course. This despite the fact that an expensive drone-drome is being developed in Wales at taxpayer expense, largely for the purpose of flight-testing Watchkeeper.
Read the Sun report here, complete with spiffy though perhaps a trifle error-prone slideshow.®
*The Special Boat Service, the naval equivalent of the Army's SAS. (The SBS recruits principally from the Royal Marines, but like the SAS will take successful candidates from any branch of the armed forces.) It is understood that the SAS are operating mainly in northern Iraq at present, while the SBS form the bulk of the UK direct-action special forces presence in Afghanistan.