by TOM HART
British MQ-9 Reapers have started operations from a base in Lincolnshire, northeast England, according to Ministry of Defense (MoD) reports. The British drones had been flown from Creech air force base, Nevada. Now the 10-strong fleet will see operations directed from home.
For sometime the Royal Air Force (RAF) was the only air force to operate the Reaper other than the United States Air Force (USAF), Italy’s contingent is set to be rolled out in the next few months. Meanwhile the RAF doubled its Reaper force late last year. The drones only operate in Afghanistan, for the moment. While the new drone compliment will operate from RAF Waddington, the original drone force will continue to fly from Creech.
As 13 Squadron, which used to fly Tornados, came online hundreds of protesters arrived at the base. While the RAF emphasizes the Reaper’s role in intelligence, and as an eye-in-the-sky to protect British forces, the protesters raised concerns over civilian casualties from U.K. drone strikes. Operational updates from the RAF point to 39 Squadron’s 260 hours of full-motion video, with actual attacks on insurgents mentioned in passing.
This approach to drones sits well with Britain’s existing fleet. A response to a parliamentary question tabled late last year revealed Britain’s drone fleet is overwhelmingly based around the Desert Hawk III, a model airplane-like drone used for surveillance, with 239 in operation. Micro-drones like the Black Hornet form the second-largest contingent. Other operational drones include nine Hermes 450, which are used for artillery spotting. The Hermes provides the basis for Britain’s Watchkeeper WK450, a French-Israeli venture that will probably be used for artillery spotting.
Although reconnaissance seems to be the primary role for British drones at the moment, with the Army leading the way, Reaper drones have not played an entirely passive role in Afghanistan. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request revealed that Reaper attacks have grown year-on-year since 2008. There were 104 attacks last year, up from 30 in the first year of operation. Weapons preferences have also changed, with a move from Paveway to Hellfire missiles. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, British drones accounted for almost 40 percent of all attacks in Afghanistan during 2011.
Drones remain in the background as far as flights over home ground are concerned. Flights take place from ParcAberporth in west Wales, the technology park and airport complex provides about 500 square miles of restricted air space for drone tests and is operated by arms giant QinetiQ. This site has also seen anti-drone protests. As more Members of Parliament and activists probe Britain’s nascent drone operations the scene is being set for the issue to become a hot political topic.