20 August 2009
The disclosure has increased pressure on ministers to devote more resources to the military’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) programme, the network of planes and unmanned drones that secretly spy on enemy activities.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, this week called for more ISTAR capability in Afghanistan to give British troops better protection from roadside bombs planted by the Taliban.
The Daily Telegraph yesterday revealed a Ministry of Defence document setting out serious shortages of key surveillance personnel that threaten to undermine operations in Afghanistan.
In evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee, the MoD has said that the training exercises involving unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are limited in the UK because the Civil Aviation Authority will not permit their use.
Air Vice-Marshal Carl Dixon, the RAF officer who oversees the ISTAR programme at the MoD, told the committee: “In the UK we cannot train using Reaper, the big UAV, or Hermes 450 because they are not licensed to fly in UK airspace currently.”
He said that British personnel due to deploy to Afghanistan trained using simulations of drones and the information that they provide.
“When we do the mission rehearsal exercise for the brigade, the task force going to Helmand, we have to simulate some of that feed to mitigate some of the problems, so you have got a mixture,” he said.
The MoD said that the limit on drone flights in the UK is not a problem for training, but admitted that it is hoping to carry out more British training missions using smaller UAVs like the Watchkeeper next year
There are mounting fears that limitations in British surveillance coverage in Afghanistan are contributing to the deaths of service personnel in Helmand province.
Several of the recent deaths came around Sangin. Commanders have admitted they were forced to “thin out” British forces around Sangin in order to launch the Panther’s Claw offensive against the Taliban to the south.
Some officers believe that the allocation of surveillance assets
to the Panther’s Claw operation left British troops around Sangin at
increased risk of IED attack.