11 December 2012
MPs are set to probe Britain's use of controversial spydrones after a report found pilots are poorly-trained and being 'pushed to the limits'.
The Defence Select Committee will examine Britain's increasing deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) after an investigation by the Military Aviation Authority found surging demand is 'constraining the length of time available to train and qualify' new operators.
It found soldiers with no past experience could be in charge of piloting a spydrone after just 25 hours flying time.
A review was ordered after the crash of a Hermes 450 (H450) unmanned aircraft at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Afghanistan, last year.
Operated by the Army personnel with the Royal Artillery from Kandahar, the surveillance drone's engine cut out in mid-air after overheating.
Failings identified could lead to another incident unless action was taken, said investigators. 'Unless urgently addressed, the contributory factors identified ... are likely to continue to affect H450 operations and may contribute to a further accident,' the report said.
The report raised concerns about the selection of drone operators, their training and development, and their poor knowledge of air- traffic control rules.
Air Marshal Tim Anderson, head of the aviation authority, demanded more than 60 changes to the operation of Britain's nine H450 drones after reading the report.
All have been accepted and are being implemented. But he warned ministers that the flaws that were exposed made for 'uncomfortable reading'.
'The findings may be interpreted as pointing to an organisation pushing the limits of organic air competence,' he wrote.
About half of Hermes pilots had to be taught from scratch for each tour of duty. 'The truncated training pipeline is producing H450 pilots and commanders to a standard that is "just enough, just in time",' the report said.
Members of the Commons' Defence Select Committee revealed yesterday they would probe the deployment of UAVs in the fight against the Taliban.
As well as the H450, the UK has five £10million Reaper drones armed with missiles currently operated by RAF personnel from 39 Squadron at Creech Air Force base in Nevada.
But five new UAVs will be controlled above the skies of southwest Afghanistan by airmen sitting at computer screens 4,000 miles away in the UK by XIII Squadron.
The Military Aviation Authority report does not touch upon the Reapers.
Unveiling the inquiry James Arbuthnot, the Tory chairman of the cross-party committee, said there were 'issues about the remoteness of the dealing of death that are important'.
The investigation will look at íthe effect of changes in the interpretation of the law on the prosecution of operations, and the use of remotely piloted aircraft'.
Labour is also calling for a new set of rules to govern the deployment of the unmanned aerial vehicles - especially when engaged in missions to kill Afghan insurgents.
Shadow Armed Forces Minister Kevan Jones said: 'We must clarify the rules, given the significance and spread of the technology
'Whether valid or not, there is a public perception that unmanned technology is shrouded in secrecy, which increases the potential for its demonisation.'
He spoke out as MPs debated Britain's involvement in drone warfare.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed that the UK's Reapers had flown more than 39,000 hours and fired at least 334 laserguided Hellfire missiles and bombs.
But it says only four Afghan civilians have been killed in strikes since 2008.
Military chiefs say the drones give allied forces an edge over the Taliban by monitoring an entire battlefield and carrying out strikes against insurgents.
But human rights campaigners claim the American-built aircraft kill and injure large numbers of civilians and breach international law.
The military is likely to use unarmed UAVs to undertake reconnaissance patrols around the coast of the UK and for Nato operations rather than replacing the RAF's Nimrod spy planes.
A spokesman for the Drone Wars UK pressure group, which has raised concern
over Britain's use of UAVs, said: 'The inquiry is a welcome step forward, but as
always the devil is in the detail and we look forward to seeing the proposed
scope and remit of the inquiry.'