The Ministry of Defence today confirmed that it is to double the number of RAF drones in Afghanistan and begin operating the aircraft from the UK for the first time.
British forces will now be able to call on 10 MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). While the drones have always been operated by RAF crews at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the new batch of five will be flown by pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
The use of UAVs remains highly controversial though international concern focuses on the increased deployment of American drones to strike into sovereign territories such as Pakistan outside the conflict zone though the US insists is operating in “self defence” against a stateless enemy of terrorists.
In contrast the British drones are flown in Afghanistan. While able to carry 500lb laser guided bombs and Hellfire missiles, they are used primarily for intelligence gathering though Ministry of Defence figures in May revealed that UK drones had fired 281 missiles and bombs.
A spokeswoman, who said the new batch, known as 13 Squadron, will be officially “stood up” at a ceremony on Friday, although not immediately operational, added: “On the rare occasions that weapons are used, the same strict rules are followed that govern the use of weapons on manned aircraft.
”Since 2006 they have provided over 100,000 hours of persistent intelligence.“
Tonight the MoD said plans to boost the number of Reaper, initially announced in December 2010, represented an increased investment of £135 million.