Exclusive: £100m drones may not fly until Britain has left Afghanistan

 

Armed drones, bought at a cost of more than £100m to support troops in Afghanistan, are not operational nearly four years after they were ordered and only six months before British forces pull out of the country, an investigation has found.

The order for five armed Reaper drones was made as an urgent requirement and announced in 2010 by David Cameron and Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary at the time, during a trip to Afghanistan.

But nearly four years on the drones have still not taken to the skies and may not play any meaningful role in the Afghan campaign, research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.

The delay has meant that British armed forces have had to cope without what Mr Fox promised would be a “significant increase in air surveillance” that would help protect front-line troops from threats such as roadside bombs. 

European aviation rules also mean the drones cannot fly in UK airspace and are likely to be sent to America when British troops withdraw from Afghanistan in December. They could be used for surveillance operations in other countries – if a formal request is made.

Last night, Margaret Hodge, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which has been highly critical of MOD procurement in the past, said the revelation “beggars belief”.

“These aircraft were meant to be supporting soldiers on the front line and now we learn that they may play no active role in Afghanistan at all,” she said. “This appears to be another procurement shambles that has let down our troops. The question the MoD needs to explain is what they intend to do with these aircraft now.”

Vernon Coaker, the shadow Defence Secretary, said the delay was the latest in a long list of MoD blunders since Mr Cameron took power. “While armed forces families are facing a cost-of-living crisis, David Cameron squanders millions of taxpayer pounds on dud equipment that will never be used,” he said.

The Liberal Democrat MP Sir Bob Russell, a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee who represents the Essex army town of Colchester, said: “This is obviously of concern. The Ministry of Defence needs to explain why there are delays and what they are doing to remedy matters.”

Mr Cameron announced the plan to double the UK’s Reaper capacity in 2010, paying £135m for five aircraft and three ground control stations. 

But delivery of the aircraft from the manufacturer, the US defence company General Atomics, was delayed because of a demand for multiple additional Reapers from the US Air Force which took precedence.

The British Reapers were expected to be operational by 2013, but have suffered hardware and software setbacks.

The aircraft completed their testing phase in the US in February, and have now been delivered to Afghanistan. There, they are being rebuilt and tested and are expected to start flying missions in the “near future”, according to an MoD spokesman.

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