Britain is doubling the number of armed RAF drones flying missions in Afghanistan. And for the first time, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be controlled by airmen at computer screens in the UK.
Two ‘pilots’ will operate the robots via satellite from a hi-tech hub at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Military commanders say the UK’s £10 million Reaper spy-drones give allied forces an edge over the Taliban by monitoring an entire battlefield and carrying out strikes against insurgents.
The hi-tech Reaper drones are primarily used to gather intelligence on enemy activity on the ground, but they also carry 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles for precision strikes on insurgents. But the state-of-the-art American-built aircraft have sparked controversy, with human rights campaigners claiming they kill and injure large numbers of civilians and breach international law.
The UK’s five Reaper drones are operated by RAF personnel from 39 Squadron at Creech Air Force base in Nevada because Britain has lacked the facilities. But five new UAVs will be controlled above the skies of south-west Afghanistan from 4,000 miles away in the UK by XIII Squadron. The drones will be in operation in six weeks, say RAF sources.
The drones are the size of a small executive jet, and take off from conventional runways. They can fly above a battlefield for up to 14 hours, beaming high-definition images to commanders on the ground.
“Only” Four Civilians Killed
Ministry of Defence figures reveal that by the end of September, the UK’s Reapers had flown 39,628 hours and fired 334 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs. The ministry says only four Afghan civilians have been killed in strikes since 2008.
A MoD spokeswoman said the new batch, known as 13 Squadron will be officially ‘stood up’ at a ceremony on Friday although operation will not start immediately. The spokesman said: ‘Reaper is the only remotely-piloted aircraft that is armed,’ the spokesman said. ‘On the rare occasions that weapons are used, the same strict rules are followed that govern the use of weapons on manned aircraft.
‘The vast majority of unmanned aircraft flying is surveillance and reconnaissance in support of our frontline troops, providing them with vital intelligence and helping to save lives in Afghanistan. ‘Since 2006 they have provided over 100,000 hours of persistent intelligence.’ Φ
Mario Ledwith is a journalist for Mailonline.