The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has admitted that British RAF pilots have borrowed USAF Reaper drones more than 250 times in Afghanistan, launching weapons on at least 39 occasions. However the numbers of strikes by RAF pilots using US Reapers drones is likely to be higher as the MoD are keeping secret the number of weapons launches by RAF pilots when they have been officially embedded with the USAF.
The revelations come in a much delayed response to a Freedom of Information request by Drone Wars UK.
Although defence ministers have reported several times in the House of Commons on weapons launched by British Reaper drones in Afghanistan, the strikes by RAF pilots using USAF drones have gone completely unreported. For example on 12 November 2012 Labour MP David Anderson asked the MoD to give details of “how many unmanned aerial vehicle strikes have been conducted by the UK since operations commenced in Afghanistan.” Replying on behalf of the MoD, Defence Minister Andrew Robathan stated:
“As of 1 November 2012, 297 Hellfire precision guided missiles and 52 laser guided bombs have been employed by the UK Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) since operations commenced in Afghanistan.”
We now know that what Robathan didn’t say was that RAF pilots also flew borrowed US Reaper drones 271 times in Afghanistan to also launch a further 39 weapons by the end of December 2012 – meaning that at least 10% of drone strikes undertaken by British RAF pilots at the time were not reported to Parliament. Given that RAF pilots have also flown US Reaper or Predator drones a further 1,800 times while officially embedded with the USAF it is highly likely that RAF pilots have launched even more strikes.
Two weeks after Robathan’s answer, Conservative MP Rehman Chishti asked “how many times (a) British forces have flown US unmanned aerial vehicles and (b) US forces have flown British unmanned aerial vehicles.” Five months later on 24 April 2013, Andrew Robathan confirmed that RAF Pilots had flown 2,150 missions using USAF Reaper and Predator drones in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq (correcting an initial brief response he had given in November 2012). Curiously he appears to have simply forgotten to respond to the second half of the question, asking about US pilots flying UK drones. However, recently appointed Defence Minister Anna Soubry appears to have ruled out any flights of UK drones by US pilots, stating in response to a question from Tom Watson MP that “outside of the launch and recovery phase, UK Reaper RPAS have always been operated by UK pilots.”
Drone Wars UK wrote to the MoD in April 2013 asking for a breakdown of the drone missions undertaken by British RAF pilots using USAF drones and whether any weapons had been launched during these flights. After a nine month delay, during which we had to repeatedly press for a response, the MoD replied on February 4 2013 stating:
“Of the 2,150 missions flown by UK personnel, there were 271 missions in Afghanistan when UK personnel utilised a US Reaper as a UK Reaper was unavailable. During these missions, UK personnel released 39 weapons. I am withholding information about weapons released by UK personnel embedded with the United States Air Force on operations in Afghanistan and Libya under Section 27 [of the Freedom of Information Act].”
The response from the MoD also does not break down the 2,150 times RAF pilots flew US drones between the three countries where they were flown as we requested. No specific details are given about the RAF’s use of US drones over Libya and the the MoD simply (and rather bizarrely) says “information is not held for operations in Iraq.”
UK and USAF Reapers normally carry both Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 Paveway bombs. However unlike British Reapers, USAF Reapers also carry the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition.
Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK said:
“This latest revelation once again demonstrates the secrecy surrounding the use of armed drones and underlines the need for greater transparency. Given the controversy surrounding the US use of armed drones, it is essential that information about drone operations – and in particular drone strikes – undertaken by British RAF pilots while embedded with US forces is made available for public scrutiny and debate rather than being withheld.
The Defence Select Committees, which is holding an inquiry into the use of drones by UK forces, has recently decided not to hold any of its sessions on this issue in public. We have urged the Committee to reconsider and do so again in the light of these revelations.
“The nature of this technology means that drones can simply and secretly be ‘borrowed’ between different operators making public accountability when strikes take place very difficult if not impossible. Even the UK, which is often portrayed as the ‘good guy’ when it comes to the use of armed drones, has undertaken 10% more drone strikes than it has reported to Parliament. Unless we act now to curb this new weaponry it seems inevitable that drones will increasingly be used to launch secret and unaccountable military attacks leading to global instability and increased insecurity.”
In the same FoI response, the MoD have given a more detailed breakdown of weapons launched by British Reapers in Afghanistan which we report in more detail here.
Update 27 Feb 2014
Responding to a question from Tom Watson MP, the MoD minister Mark Francois has now said
“Reaper Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) weapon release figures previously provided include missions involving UK-owned remotely piloted aircraft and UK use of US-owned remotely piloted aircraft.”
This is bizarre as answers given on this issue have specifically said the weapons were released from UK Reapers (see here and here for examples). We have written to the Secretary of State on the matter and will update when we have further information. .