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The US Air Force is looking at equipping its General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft with British ‘Brimstone’ missiles, to reduce collateral damage. The Reapers flown by the US Air Force are currently employed with AGM-114R ‘Hellfire’ missiles and laser guided bombs, controversial in their usage with the drones.

Although the AGM-114R ‘Hellfire’ missile has been optimised for operation from UAVs, provided with a laser seeker with wider aspect angle, smokeless launch and multi-purpose warhead, according to Defense News, the US Air Force’s secretive “Big Safari Group” is evaluating the British Brimstone missile as an alternative.

Brimstone was developed as a ‘fire and forget’ weapon, similar to the Hellfire ‘Longbow’. However, unlike the Longbow, Brimstone was converted to integrate laser guidance, providing post launch guidance and ‘man in the loop’ intervention, enabling operators to abort an attack after a missile is launched, or correct a missile that locks on the wrong target, thus prevent civilian casualties if possible and engage targets in close proximity to friendly forces.

The 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, better known as “Big Safari,” is a rapid acquisition office for the US Air Force, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The group is known for its work on unmanned and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, and is widely credited with the decision to arm drones for use in Afghanistan.

The use of armed drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere to take out high-value Taliban and al-Qaida leaders, UAVs like the Reaper have caused controversy, especially since the drone strikes often kill civilians, as well.

Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone (DMSB) missiles fitted with a Litening targeting pod to a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft. Photo: MBDA
Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone (DMSB) missiles fitted with a Litening targeting pod to a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft. Photo: MBDA

Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that having struggled to come up with a weapon of their own in this class, the US Air Force’s purchase of Brimstone would be an effective tool.

“Brimstone on Reaper, with its option for man-in-the-loop guidance, would give you all the benefits the weapon gives fixed-wing strike aircraft crews,” Barrie said. “It would be an effective quick fix, able to give Reaper users the added security of a dual-mode system that they don’t get on some other weapons.”

“Brimstone is being used to great effect by the RAF in Afghanistan and was also invaluable during the successful air campaign in Libya.” said RAF Wing Commander Andy Turk, commander of  IX (Bomber) Squadron ”It is very popular with our air crews because of its flexibility, accuracy and reliability – they have real confidence that the weapon will deliver the effects required.”  Turk led the initial Tornado operations over Libya and is currently deployed in Afghanistan.

The weapon came to prominence during the Libya campaign in 2011, when it was used to destroy targets hiding among houses without damaging the dwellings. It also has been successfully used for several years against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Royal Air Force chiefs revealed during the height of the Libyan campaign that the US and France had expressed an interest in Brimstone.

In January 2013 the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) has awarded MBDA £14 million to replenish the Brimstone missiles stocks used during the Libyan campaign, the contract will deliver hundreds of new missiles.

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