The British military has allowed journalists and cameras into its previously top secret drone operation for the first time.
Access to XIII Squadron, the RAF team that operates the aircraft, was granted after months of negotiation in an attempt at transparency and because the Ministry of Defence is “fed up with the myths”.
It is a major step forward in the understanding of a fast developing military asset used by an increasing number of nations and surrounded in controversy.
The UK operation is conducted in a large aircraft hangar deep inside RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, but the drones are flying over Afghanistan many thousands of miles away.
Britain has a range of UAS’s – Unmanned Aerial Systems – commonly known as drones, a nickname disliked by the British government.
They range from the very small – palm sized helicopters for hovering and watching at short range – to aircraft the same size of a light aircraft which can fly at 20,000 feet.
The largest and only armed drone in the British fleet is the Reaper. It carries four Hellfire missiles and can strike a target, with precision, from distance.
Britain has five Reapers and a further five on order. The first Reaper operations from UK territory started on April 24 at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
XIII Squadron had previously flown missions in Afghanistan from Creech Air Base in Nevada.
Figures obtained by Sky News under a Freedom of Information request show that RAF Reaper drones have fired 41 missiles between April and November this year. They have also flown 3085.52 hours, an average of 16 each day, in that time.
Despite persistent requests by Sky News and other organisations, the government has not released details of casualties and deaths from drone strikes, insisting it does not collect such data because of the dangers and difficulties in doing so.
“As far as we are aware there have been no civilian casualties as a result of those strikes,” the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told Sky News.
“The only RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air System) strike which has involved a civilian casualty that we are aware of, took place in 2011, a regrettable incident but something that could have happened with a manned aircraft.”
That incident killed four Afghan civilians in March 2011 when two pick-up trucks were hit – two insurgents also died. A resulting ISAF inquiry found that the drone pilots had followed correct procedures.
The pilots are all experienced and highly trained. Many have come from a career flying fast jets. They must abide by the same rules. A lawyer is on the end of a phone if needed.
One of the pilots, who only wanted to be known by his first name, Col, explained further: “Coming across here and doing the job in exactly the same way as any manned aircraft would do, using the same rules, the same laws of engagements, the same laws of armed conflicts as any other aircraft does, means that we feel entirely comfortable executing force be it from Afghanistan or from here.”
The growing dependence on drones, particularly by the US military, is proving increasingly controversial.
Barack Obama has been accused of prosecuting an unauthorised war in Pakistan by repeatedly using drones to strike against suspected terrorist targets.
“Targets are always positively identified as legitimate military objectives, and strikes are prosecuted in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict and UK Rules of Engagement,” the MoD explained.
“When tasked to attack a target, qualified Reaper pilots can select from two types of precision-guided weapons. They will select the smallest warhead appropriate to the target being attacked, and every effort is made to avoid civilian casualties.
“In some circumstances, this results in attacks being aborted.”
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