The Watchkeeper drone will be used to help the Border Force agency’s efforts to “tackle” boats making the dangerous crossings, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed.
It is the first time the eye-in-the-sky war technology – which has been used by the Army in Afghanistan – will fly operationally in the UK.
It comes as migrants continue to risk the route in the Dover Strait, though bad weather has limited the number of crossings in recent days.
Other armed forces aircraft have also been authorised to help monitor small boats, but the Royal Navy is still considering a government request to deploy patrol boats to assist the Border Force.
An MoD spokesperson said: “The deployment of Watchkeeper provides further defence support to the Home Office in tackling the increasing number of small boats crossing the English Channel.
“It will provide a leading surveillance and reconnaissance capability, feeding information back to the Border Force and allowing them to take appropriate action where necessary.”
The unmanned air system (UAS), hailed as a “battle-winning technology” by then defence secretary Michael Fallon in 2014, is scheduled to fly from Lydd airport in Kent and will be operated by 47th Regiment Royal Artillery.
The Watchkeeper drones programme has cost the UK more than £1bn, figures released in 2017 showed. However, the devices have been beset by issues in recent years.
Four are known to have crashed, including two which plunged into the sea off the coast of Wales in early 2017. The other two crashes happened in 2014 and 2015 whilst landing at West Wales Airport and MoD Boscombe Down respectively.
More than 5,000 migrants have crossed to the UK in small boats so far in 2020. Boris Johnson’s government has said it is working with France to make the sea route “unviable”, but campaigners have called for safer legal routes to claim asylum in the UK.
Last week the Home Office was accused of an “assault on the rule of law” over its comments about “activist lawyers” who are representing migrants.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies