RAF hides true scale of unmanned Taliban war


More than half of the RAF's drone strikes against Taliban militants in Afghanistan are not reported publicly, a new analysis has revealed.

Every week the RAF provides public updates of its operations in Afghanistan, including details about its US-built Reaper drones which are frequently called on to provide cover for troops, monitor the battlefield and hunt down Taliban commanders.

But the details of the majority of missions are withheld, despite growing debate about the increasing use of drones and the ethics of relying on unmanned weapon systems.

According to the first analysis of those weekly briefings, the RAF have published details of only 98 individual drone strikes since the summer of 2008 when Reaper drones were first used by Britain. However, Freedom of Information Requests have revealed that British drones in Afghanistan have launched missiles at least 266 times, meaning 60 per cent of attacks go unreported.

Chris Cole, an arms campaigner who obtained the figures and published them on his website Drone Wars, said the RAF needed to do more to inform the public about how drones are being used.

"We need to have a proper public debate about the use of drones but we cannot do that if we don't have enough information," he said. "Much of the reporting put out is positive stories where missions have gone well. It makes you wonder what they're holding back from us."

One example of an attack not included in the RAF's operational updates is a strike that occurred on 25 March 2011, in which four civilians are known to have died. A Reaper was tracking a known Taliban commander who was travelling in a convoy of trucks in the Nawzad district of Helmand province.

A missile fired from the drone destroyed the two trucks, killing two insurgents and four civilians. It was the first time the British military had admitted to civilian collateral casualties from a drone strike. But there is no mention of the strike in the RAF operational updates for that period.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said it was entirely routine for details to be kept secret for operational and security reasons. "The RAF Ops Update has never purported to provide a comprehensive record of Air Activity," he said. "The Update is designed to provide a snap-shot of weekly activity in theatre and its output subjective in its content."