MILAN — The Netherlands is set to receive four additional MQ-9 Reaper drones that will carry guided bombs and missiles.
More than a decade after launching the process to buy MQ-9A Reapers from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Dutch government announced it will not only double its order but also arm them for the first time.
“When the [Ministry of Defence] started the project in 2011, there was no need to arm the aircraft yet. However, the threat picture has changed considerably since then. The aircraft must now be able to protect the safety of its own troops,” Defence Secretary Christophe van der Maat wrote in a letter to parliament in May.
The Netherlands first signed a deal to purchase four unarmed MQ-9A Reaper Block 5 drones from the General Atomics division in 2018 that were solely intended for intelligence-gathering and surveillance missions. The U.S. company delivered the initial batch and associated ground control stations last year.
The MoD now plans to upgrade these systems to carry GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-surface missiles. The latter currently equip the AH-64 helicopters operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
The Netherlands will buy the weapons from the U.S. government through the Foreign Military Sales program, and the package will cost between $108 million and $270 million, van der Maat said in his statement.
The aim is to have the first ammunition ready for initial deployment by 2025 so it can fully deploy in 2028.
On Aug. 21, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems confirmed in a news release that the Air Force was doubling the number of MQ-9As on order, taking the total quantity from four to eight unmanned aircraft. According to the manufacturer, with this new set of capabilities, the Netherlands will have the most capable set of Block 5 drones in the world.
“The expansion to eight aircraft will enable the Dutch MoD to support international missions on more than one axis, giving it the capability to operate the aircraft from one main operating base and two forward operating bases simultaneously,” Tom van Hout, a spokesperson for the ministry, told Defense News. “The sensor capacity of the platforms will also be improved with maritime surveillance radar and electronic support measures pods.”
The drones will be based and flown from the main operating location of Leeuwarden Air Base, and operated by the 306 Squadron. Van Hout noted that subject matter experts and liaison officers of the Royal Netherlands Navy will also support this squadron in specific naval operations.
The Dutch Reapers are not certified to fly in civil airspace alongside routine air traffic, but van Hout said the manufacturer “and partners” are working on this capability.
Appetite for change
European countries have wrestled with the question of buying armed drones for years. As a result, most countries’ forces were only allowed to deploy unarmed drones for reconnaissance.
But evolving threats as well as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 triggered a wider appetite for arms and a change in defense policies.
In April 2022, Germany’s parliamentary Defence Committee approved for the first time the purchase of missiles to arm Israeli-made Heron TP drones.
In January 2023, Greece announced it is locally building its first combat drone, the Grypas, of which a scaled version is expected in 2025.
And while there has long been talk that Spain might arm its fleet of Reapers, there has been no official confirmation. Nonetheless, in July the Spanish government approved the purchase of nine Airbus-made SIRTAP packages, 27 drones total, that can conduct armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, according to Spanish news outlet Infodefensa.
Prior to this, in 2021, Italy revealed its intention to arm its Reapers, allocating $69 million for the effort over the next seven years.
Additionally, although France operates armed MQ-9s, it unveiled its new French-made Aarok combat drone at the 2023 Paris Air Show, which could rival the Reaper.
Belgium, however, has a large number of government officials who remain opposed to arming the country’s MQ-9B fleet based on ethical issues.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.