22 October 2012
UK to double number of drones in Afghanistan
RAF makes urgent purchase of five more Reaper drones, which will be the first to be controlled from a UK base
By Nick Hopkins
The Guardian


The UK's existing Reaper drones in Afghanistan have flown about 40,000 hours so far. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The UK is to double the number of armed RAF "drone" flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan, and for the first time the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain.

In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five new Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan, the Guardian can reveal. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks.

Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a new hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

The UK already has five Reaper drones targeting suspected insurgents in Helmand, but they have been operated from Creech Air Force base in the US state of Nevada, because Britain has not had the capability to fly them from here.

By "standing up" the new XIII squadron in a ceremony this Friday, the UK will soon have 10 Reapers in Afghanistan.

The government has yet to decide whether they will remain there after the end of 2014, when all Nato combat operations are due to end.

"The new squadron will have three control terminals at RAF Waddington, and the five aircraft will be based in Afghanistan," a spokesman confirmed. "We will continue to operate the other Reapers from Creech, though in time, we will wind down operations there and bring people back to the UK."

The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan, and the UK has been flying them virtually nonstop since 2008.

Last month the CIA's programme of "targeted" drone killings in Pakistan's tribal heartlands was condemned by a report by US academics. The attacks are politically counterproductive, kill large numbers of civilians and undermine respect for international law, according to the study by Stanford and New York universities' law schools.

The most recent figures from the Ministry of Defence show that by the end of September 2012, the UK's five Reapers in Afghanistan have flown 39,628 hours and fired 334 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs at suspected insurgents.

While British troops on the ground have started to take more of a back-seat role, the use of UAVs has increased markedly over the past two years, despite fears from human rights campaigners that civilians might have been killed or injured in some of the attacks.

The RAF bought the drones as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) specifically for Afghanistan, and the MoD confirmed it was unclear what would happen to them after 2014.

Under rules imposed by the EU and the Civil Aviation Authority, UAVs can only be flown in certain places in the UK, including around the Aberporth airfield in mid-Wales.

If the air-exclusion zone restrictions are not lifted by the end of 2014, then the UK may have to relocate the aircraft to the US, or perhaps even to Kenya, sources said.

"No decisions have been made about the longer-term future of Reaper as a core capability, nor have any decisions been made on the basing of Reaper aircraft once the UOR is complete," said a spokesman. "The UK has a need for a persistent intelligence gathering capability. Our investment and experiences with Reaper will be considered in developing the programme ... at this stage, the MoD is still developing this strategy."

The MoD said the relocation of RAF personnel from 39 Squadron at Creech Air Force base would begin in the new year, and that RAF Waddington would eventually become home to two squadrons of drones.

"The intention is to phase the relocation of 39 Squadron to ensure there is no disruption to Reaper support to current operations," the spokesman added.

In the first three-and-a-half years of using the Reapers in Afghanistan, the aircraft flew 23,400 hours and fired 176 missiles. But those figures have almost doubled in the past 15 months as Nato seeks to weaken the Taliban ahead of withdrawal.

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its drone strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment.

However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died, because of the "immense difficulty and risks" of verifying who has been hit.

The MoD says it relies on Afghans making official complaints at military bases if their friends or relatives have been wrongly killed a system campaigners say is flawed and unreliable.

Heather Barr, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, has said: "There are many disincentives for people to make reports.

"Some of these areas are incredibly isolated, and people may have to walk for days to find someone to report a complaint. For some, there will be a certain sense of futility in doing so anyway. There is no uniform system for making a complaint and no uniform system for giving compensation. This may not encourage them to walk several days to speak to someone who may not do anything about it."

In December 2010, David Cameron claimed 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister had got the figure from, and that it had not been provided by the MoD.

On Tuesday there will be a high court hearing which may shed light on any support the UK is giving to the CIA's campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan.

The case has been brought by Noor Khan, whose father was killed in an attack on a local council meeting in 2011. He is asking the foreign secretary, William Hague, to clarify the government's position on sharing intelligence for use in CIA strikes, and challenging the lawfulness of such activities.

His lawyer, Rosa Curling, said: "This case is about the legality of the UK government providing 'locational intelligence' to the US for use in drone strikes in Pakistan. An off-the-record GCHQ source stated to a number of media outlets that GCHQ assistance was being provided to the US for use in drone attacks and this assistance was 'in accordance with the law.'

"We have advised our client that this is incorrect. The secretary of state has misunderstood the law on this extremely important issue and a declaration from the court confirming the correct legal position is required as a matter of priority."

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