Four years ago, Britain decided to deploy a force of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Since last year, at least two British Reapers have been in Afghanistan at any one time. Britain has now ordered a total of 13 Reapers. The first British Reaper entered service in Afghanistan three years ago, and have, since then, spent over 10,000 hours in the air. For the last two years, British Reapers have been armed with Hellfire missiles and smart bombs.
Each MQ-9 Reaper cost $18 million each (with ground equipment and high end sensors). The 4.7 ton American built Reaper has a wingspan of 21 meters/66 feet and a payload of 1.7 tons. Also called the "Predator B", several dozen are currently in service, mostly with U.S. forces.
Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, because it can carry over a ton of bombs or missiles. This includes the hundred pound Hellfire missile, and up to four 500 pound laser or GPS guided smart bombs. Reapers can carry four Hellfires in place of one JDAM. Often, a Hellfire is preferred because of the risk of civilians nearby getting hurt. The UAVs have a major advantage over manned fighter-bombers, in that they can stay over the target area longer, and do so with relief crews, so that there are always alert eyes using the powerful sensors (similar to the targeting pods on fighters) carried by the Reaper.
Britain has bought Reapers via an "under urgent operational requirement deal" to support British troops in Afghanistan. Over the next few years, Britain will all 13 Reapers, in addition to five Ground Control Stations, nine Multi-Spectral Targeting Systems, nine Synthetic Aperture Radar/Ground Moving Target Indicator systems, three Satellite Earth Terminal Sub Stations, 30 Global Positioning System Inertial Navigation Systems, as well as spare parts, test equipment, various types of technical support, and communications equipment. There are also multi-year contracts for technical assistance and training/equipment and all manner of manufacturer support.
The operators of British Reapers work out of an American air force base in Nevada, as part of a joint U.S./British Reaper unit. The British are very pleased with the performance of their Reapers (despite one being lost because of a mechanical failure). The joint task force in Nevada enables British operators and commanders to quickly absorb the U.S. experience with Reaper and Predator. Like the Americans, the British find that the "persistence" (long flight time) of Reaper a crucial advantage. This capability has put the Taliban at an enormous disadvantage, and much improved the security, and offensive capabilities, for British forces. The British also find the Reaper a lot more cost effective than other combat aircraft like the Harrier and AH-64 helicopter gunship.