USAF seeks to fly unmanned aircraft from RAF Fairford from 2024

In late July, British media channels reported that the USAF had applied to the UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to change its airspace rules in order to allow RQ-4B Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and MQ-9A Reaper medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) to fly from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

At present, uncrewed aircraft that fly beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) are not currently allowed to fly in the UK unless they are in segregated airspace. The USAF hopes to establish segregated airspace corridors to allow these UAVs to transit through UK airspace, with a “working assumption” that any such corridors would be activated two or three times per week and with all activations being “between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise unless in extremis.”

A USAF RQ-4B Global Hawk is seen on the ground at Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE after completing a mission that saw the type log more than 20,000 flight hours on February 13, 2018.
A USAF RQ-4B Global Hawk is seen on the ground at Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE after completing a mission that saw the type log more than 20,000 flight hours on February 13, 2018. USAF/Airman 1st Class Darrion Browning

There is some consideration of “activation periods that exceed these assumptions, both in frequency and time periods of utilisation,” however. The RAF is currently seeking similar arrangements to enable it to fly the UK’s new MQ-9B Protector RG1 UCAVs from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, and the USAF may choose to wait for the CAA’s decision in this case before proceeding with its own application. However, RAF Fairford – located in the UK’s already crowded south east region – has more complex and congested airspace, sitting as it does in an area of intense aerial activity, just ten miles away from RAF Brize Norton (the RAF’s main transport base), 50 miles from Bristol Airport and approximately 65 miles from London Heathrow Airport and Birmingham Airport.

A recent update of the USAF application states that while “the [US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE)] requirement for MALE RPAS at RAF Fairford remains”, it is temporarily pausing the process in order to reassess how it can comply with the current regulatory framework. The USAF application has already provoked some opposition, with concerns expressed over safety, the lack of UK jurisdiction over US operations from British bases and the long history of the US military’s use of unmanned platforms for controversial strikes and ‘targeted killings’. Neither of the aircraft types that the USAF wants to operate from Fairford are fitted with Detect and Avoid Systems, which would allow them to avoid confliction with other air traffic in congested environments.