Throughout its history the Royal Air Force has emphasised the power of its frontline aircraft through their names. With very few exceptions they have embodied prowess in conflict, from the Hurricane and Spitfire fighters of the second world war through to the present day.
In the early post-war years, we had the Meteor and Vampire interceptors and the Javelin all-weather fighter, followed by the Hunter and then the Lightning. The three V-bombers carrying much of the UK’s nuclear force were the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan; early naval nuclear-capable aircraft were the Scimitar and the Buccaneer. More recently we had the Jaguar, the Harrier and the Tornado, and currently there is the Typhoon. This will be followed in turn by the US F-35 which, in its British manifestation, is called the Lightning, reminiscent of its 1950s counterpart.
It’s remarkable, then, that the RAF’s armed drones are to be known as Protectors.
The use of armed drones in modern warfare has come almost from nowhere in barely a decade. When the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme began studying armed drones – among many other matters – in 2012, just two countries were producing and exporting them: the US and Israel. Far more are involved now.
The UK has been a little late in manufacturing its own systems, apart from an early army rail-launched system, the Phoenix, operated by the Royal Artillery in the late 1990s. But the RAF was quick to see the value of armed drones, though it preferred more anodyne terminology such as ‘unmanned aerial systems’ or the gender-neutral ‘remotely piloted aerial systems’. It looked primarily to the US to buy the aircraft: the first substantial acquisition was the MQ-9 series, initially known as the Predator and subsequently the Reaper.
The Ministry of Defence purchased ten of these in 2006, with offensive operations starting in Afghanistan the following year. According to the military journal Jane’s Defence Weekly, over the next seven years they flew some 71,000 combat hours and dropped 510 precision-guided munitions.
This was a remarkably sudden change in tactics: from a standing start the Reaper became the main means of bombing the Taliban and other armed opposition groups. Even though the RAF continued to make extensive use of piloted aircraft, principally the Tornado and the Harrier, neither of these strike aircraft used as many munitions as the Reaper.
The UK withdrew its combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014 and transferred armed drone operations to the Middle East for use against ISIS and other groups in Iraq and Syria. The drones themselves are currently based at the Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, where launch and recovery units handle them, but are ‘flown’ by RAF personnel at one of two locations: the USAF Creech Air Base west of Las Vegas in Nevada or the RAF’s own Waddington, just south of Lincoln.
So where does the new Protector come in to all this? Essentially it is a comprehensive upgrade of the Reaper: it can carry a wider range of weapons; it reduces the RAF’s dependence on US systems, including satellite communications; and it can stay aloft for forty hours, twice the time of the Reaper. And it has two other important characteristics.
One is that the drone operators at Creech or Waddington will no longer depend on ground control stations and data-linked towers near combat zones, reducing the personnel that need to be in such locations. This may not seem a big issue except that a couple of months ago an Al-Shabaab group attacked just such a US facility at the Baledoggle military base in Somalia. The Protector allows remote warfare to become even more remote.
The other change, reported by Jane’s, may be the most significant of all. The RAF’s current offensive drone operations have been conducted outside European air space and none of the current systems can be used in the UK or western Europe. That will change when the Protector is deployed. As Jane’s puts it:
Crucially the Protectors will be able to fly in civilian-controlled airspace, which will allow the RAF to base them at RAF Waddington and operate in new theatres, for example over Europe, where the air-space control issues are different from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.
Then there is the name. Armed drones simply don’t have a very good reputation among the general public. ‘Unmanned aerial systems’ and ‘remotely piloted aerial systems’ just aren’t used in normal discourse and it really doesn’t help if the armed drones go by names such as Predator and (Grim) Reaper. We clearly need something that is less Arnie Schwarzenegger and more Mary Poppins, hence from Reaper to Protector in one quick step, even if it does break an RAF tradition going back over eighty years. Needs must, and in the important business of war, language is everything.