Speaking to journalists yesterday before meeting with his French counterpart, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told journalists that all ten of the UK’s armed Reapers were “out on service, each one of them.” Previously the MoD has told Drone Wars UK and others that while some Reapers were undertaking combat operations in Iraq and Syria others were in storage in the UK although it refused to detail the numbers.
Asked yesterday by the press about possible co-operation on operating Reapers Mr Fallon told journalists that Reaper drones were on the agenda for his discussion with Jean-Yves Le Drian. Defence News reports:
“I specifically want to talk to Minister Le Drian today about Reaper UAV capacity,” Fallon told journalists here. “There is bottleneck on training drone pilots and we’re all short of drones.
“We have 10, they’re out on service at the moment, each one of them. We don’t have spare capacity to allocate anywhere else. Maybe there is much we could do there in common, either in the training or the procurement.”
The question that immediately arises is whether all ten are being used in Iraq and Syria or are some being used elsewhere? North Africa, where both the US and France are operating Reapers has often been suggested as a possibility.
A key issue with the growing use of armed drones is their ability to be used in great secrecy due to their ability to be used remotely and operated by a relatively small crew. The fact that they can and have easily been borrowed for operations by other nations together with a general lack of transparency also gives great cause for concern.
We expect urgent questions to be asked about this issue in the House of Commons in the coming days in order to, at the very least, clarify the situation.
The Ministry of Defence has confirmed numerous times that it has 10 armed Reaper drones in its fleet since acquiring an additional five aircraft from US manufacturer General Atomics last summer.
Throughout the war in Afghanistan the MoD confirmed the number of armed drones on operation as well as their location. However since the end of combat operation there, the MoD has changed its policy insisting that for security reasons it could no longer give such detail. We wrote to the MoD asking what was the key security difference between operations in Afghanistan, where the information could be released, and Iraq where it apparently cannot. The MoD told us:
In Afghanistan there were a large number of air assets contributing to the overall ISAF mission. Given this were able to release information on UK Reaper assets as this did not compromise capabilities by giving an indication of the level and area of coverage. As we drew down in Afghanistan, disclosing the capability in each location could have disclosed potential capability gaps, which could have compromised security, this is when the UK ceased to release information.
On Op SHADER, releasing the location of UK Reapers could disclose capability gaps and compromise security. Furthermore, for the protection of other nations involved, the UK does not divulge their location in accordance with FOI qualified exemption 27 – international relations.
This is something of an odd answer as there are also ‘a large number of air assets’ operating over Iraq. In addition and by stark contrast the UK is happy to detail the location and number of Tornado aircraft on operations in Iraq without it being a security issue.
More details on this when we have it.