While the Royal Air Force's (RAF's) airlift fleet has undoubtedly been the public focus of the UK's efforts to evacuate nationals from Sudan, another British military asset has been operating over the war-torn African nation, assisting evacuation efforts in a much more subtle way.
A General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) MQ-9A Reaper remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) from No XIII Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, has been operating in the vicinity of Port Sudan. The RPAS has been providing real-time imagery of the ongoing evacuation effort around the port, as well as the route between it and the Coral Hotel, where the UK's Border Force; Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and military forces are processing evacuees from the UK and US.
Commenting on the operation, the Squadron Executive Officer for No XIII Squadron - who will remain anonymous for operational security reasons - said: "For [No] XIII Squadron to operate the RAF Reaper over two separate continents on two different missions, having eyes on the ground in Africa and the Middle East simultaneously shows the flexibility of the aircraft and our people, a remarkable effort from all the squadron."
The MQ-9A is an RPAS that was designed to provide an armed overwatch mission, while also offering significant intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition (ISTAR) capabilities. For this particular mission, imagery and video footage gathered by the Reaper has been used to assist troops on the ground by notifying them with areas to avoid; identifying buildings that would be suitable for temporary shelters for evacuees; and support the crew of HMS Lancaster (F229), which is currently alongside in Port Sudan. The Type 23 frigate was diverted from Operation Kipion in the Gulf to assist with the evacuation efforts.
Noting the importance of the Reaper's presence in Sudan, Cmdr Tom Johnson - the officer commanding HMS Lancaster - said: "The last Royal Navy ship to come here was HMS Galetea (F18) almost 40 years ago, which means our knowledge of this port is somewhat out-of-date. For me as the Captain, to have that knowledge provided by Reaper and imagery of the surrounding area has allowed us to plan our force protection and situational awareness. It has been important to understand the route between where my ship is and the Coral Hotel, where all the affected persons are currently being administered prior to evacuation."
The RAF began operating the MQ-9A in 2008, with 11 examples of the RPAS delivered to the air arm in total. No more than seven Reapers remain in RAF service today, with the fleet set to be replaced by at least 16 MQ-9B Protector RG1s, which will begin operations in 2024 under the stewardship of No 31 Squadron 'Goldstars' at RAF Waddington. While 16 MQ-9Bs have been ordered so far, the UK Ministry of Defence could exercise its option to acquire a further ten airframes, growing the Protector fleet to 26 aircraft.