The UK is recruiting RAAF pilots to fly its armed MQ-9 Reaper fleet over Syria and Iraq because of a “challenging” shortage of its own crew.
The news comes ahead of a planned uptick in operational capacity through 2024; Britain’s fleet is scheduled to swell from 9 Reapers to 16 Protectors at a cost of £1.1 billion.
At the same time, Australian personnel are reportedly hoping to gain experience at the helm of the Reaper, after it was selected ahead of the Skyguardian for introduction Down Under as part of Air 7003.
Though the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has yet to confirm numbers of Australians involved with the program, an addendum to the annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority revealed that a pilot shortage issue had been solved in part through both the use of “Royal Australian Air Force exchange officers, and a pathway to using contractors to relieve Royal Air Force personnel at the deployed location”.
While military sources have told The Guardian that General Atomics’ contractors are banned from firing missiles in the Middle East – instead being limiting to take-off and landing duties – human rights groups and NGOs have warned that reliance on contractors to plug personnel gaps sets a dangerous precedent.
Chris Coles, director of UK-based NGO Drone Wars, said that “introducing private contractors into flying combat missions, even in a limited way, is dangerous and short-sighted and should be ended immediately”.
Pilot shortages have long plagued the program, with the UK MoD’s permanent secretary admitting in January that training and retaining drone crews “has historically proved challenging”.