21 March 2009
RAF bomb the Taliban from 8,000 miles away
British air crews are in combat against the Taliban using hunter-killer unmanned aircraft controlled from a base on the other side of the world in the Nevada desert.
By Sean Rayment
Daily Telegraph Defence Correspondent,
at Creech US Air Force Base, Nevada
At the flick of a switch, the RAF Reaper device's deadly arsenal of laser-guided 500lb bombs and hellfire missiles can destroy an enemy stronghold in seconds.
Reaper's array of sensors can detect improvised explosive devices, eavesdrop on mobile phones and monitor Taliban activity in virtually all weathers, by day and night.
Unlike other RAF aircraft operating in Afghanistan, however, the Reaper MQ-9 is "flown" from 8,000 miles away in darkened control rooms at the United States' Creech Air Force Base in the desert in Nevada, United States.
It is, quite simply, the most risk-free form of combat to have been invented – and it is a growing element of modern warfare.
For the British crews who fly the aircraft, the most dangerous part of their day is the drive between the air-force base and their homes in the suburbs of Las Vegas.
"There is no risk to any of my crews at all," said Wing Commander Andy Jeffrey, the head of the RAF's 39 Squadron – the Reaper unit. "But that does not mean they are emotionally detached from what is happening on the ground. When troops are in contact, you can hear the guns firing, and the stress in the voices of the British soldiers [on the ground]. We know the risks they are taking and we know if we make mistakes, lives can be lost. Every day we fly operations over Helmand – flying the Reaper is not a soft option."
The regiment is composed of 12 two-man crews who pilot the aircraft every day of the year. The crews are supported by a tri-service team of intelligence specialists, signallers and meteorologists all of whom are volunteers and most of whom are veterans of at least one war.
While the 90-strong members of the regiment might be serving on a US base, the unit's Reaper operation is an entirely British mission.
Reaper was designed to spy, hunt and kill. The aircraft has a top speed of 240 knots and is powered by a 1,000-horsepower turbo prop at the rear. It is fitted with a bewildering array of sensors as well as three cameras, which operate at day and night allowing the operators to identify between friend and foe, man and child.
Despite being remotely controlled, however, the aircraft can only be flown by highly qualified pilots.
Squadron Leader Steve Smith, 40, who previously flew Tornado jets, admits to suffering a "sense of humour failure" when comparisons are made with video games. "I hate the Xbox generation comparison. The Reaper is the size of a Harrier ground-attack aircraft. You need to be an experienced pilot to fly this thing. It's not a high-performance aircraft like a fast jet, you don't get involved in dog fights, but you need to know how the air environment works."
Sergeant Al Chevis, 27, a weapon systems operator, is also dismissive of the claim that crews are somehow detached from the reality of war.
He said: "In the way we deploy weapons you actually see the delivery of the bomb to the bitter end. You see the weapon go all the way and you can see the look on the faces of the enemy as the bomb hits. We can also see the aftermath, so we are definitely emotionally involved."
In the control room the pilot sits on the left-hand side and the sensor operator sits on the right. The pilot has a throttle and a joystick from where he can release bombs or fire missiles. In front of the crew are 10 computer screens, of which two provide high-resolution, real-time video imagery of the ground. The other screens provide the crew with the information they need to fly the mission. Crews talk to Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTacs) – the troops who identify targets and call in air strikes – on the ground in Helmand. When a Reaper is providing top cover for British troops, the JTac is in constant communication with the crew. Using a device known as a "Rover", a laptop computer, the JTac can also see the same video image as the crews in Creech and can direct the Reaper onto targets.
The crews often work with members of the Special Forces conducting surveillance and strike operations against senior al-Qaeda and Taliban commanders or High Value Targets (HVTs).
An earlier version of Reaper – the Predator – was used in the attack on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Predator monitored al-Zarqawi's movements until his house was attacked by American jets. Reaper has also been used to kill at least six senior al-Qaeda commanders in the Pakistan border region, including Rashid Rauf, a British terrorist.
All Reaper take-off and landings are controlled by crews in Kandahar, where the aircraft are based, but when airborne, the Creech pilots take over. Although the aircraft can fly for up to 17 hours, when fully armed, the crews only fly for a maximum of four hours to ensure fresh eyes are always watching the British troops on the ground. And because much of the flying is on autopilot, crews can take lavatory breaks, stretch their legs and, in some circumstances, take a call from their wives.
The RAF has only two Reapers. Three were originally bought from General Atomics but one developed technical failures and crashed in Afghanistan in June 2008. A team of Special Forces was sent into the crash site to remove the secret technical equipment, after which the wreckage was destroyed by RAF Harriers.
It is understood that the RAF plans to have a fleet of six Reapers by the end of the year, giving the regiment 24/7 capability.
The regiment conducted its first operational sortie in October 2007, and began carrying weapons in early 2008. Since then, the unit has flown 3,800 operational hours in 391 different missions. Of those, approximately 10 have involved attacks against the Taliban. Sqn Ldr Archie Brown, 43, is the regiment's chief of staff and one of its longest serving members.
"Most of our operations are benign," he said. "We are looking at patterns of life, which includes changes in behaviour and routines within communities, such as farmers not tending fields, which may suggest Taliban activity.
"But we can also go kinetic [drop bombs] when needed. For that to happen, the mission must be legal, proportional and necessary – those are the tests and it can be a lengthy process. But if troops are in contact on the ground that process can be reduced to minutes."
Sqn Ldr Brown recalled the first time the Reaper was used to kill the Taliban. For operational reasons the identity of the crew cannot be disclosed. The mission took place last year in Helmand when a group of Taliban were about to attack British troops.
Sqn Ldr Brown continued: "The crew went through the whole 'Kill Chain' process. That is 'find it, fix it, track it, target it and make the assessment'. The bomb had a successful effect. They [the Taliban] were exhibiting hostile intent and after the bomb dropped they stopped exhibiting hostile intent. They had all been killed.
"Everyone wants to do the job right and if you do the job right there is always a degree of satisfaction with that. But with power comes responsibility and you are aware that you have taken life. We all believe that it's for a just cause, so I always sleep soundly at night."
Sqn Ldr Brown admits that some people might find it odd that he goes home every night to his wife after being involved in combat operations in southern Afghanistan. "The wives are happy because we are not in harm's way," he says with a smile. "I am not absolutely sure they want to know everything about what we do, some do, and some don't. My wife knows not to ask."