Revealed: Private contractors flying British armed drones as number of UK strikes in Iraq increase again

Contractors maintain and operate US drones (General Atomics)

British forces have begun to use private contractors to launch and recover UK Reaper drones undertaking operations against ISIS and other missions which the MoD is refusing to disclose.

The revelation comes as a new Freedom of Information (FoI) response reveals an increase in the number of UK airstrikes in Iraq over the past quarter.  According to the FoI data, UK Reaper and Typhoon aircraft launched 32 airstrikes (or ‘Weapon Release Events’ as the MoD now describes them) against ISIS in April-June 2020.  Not since the end of the battle to regain control of Mosul in 2017 has the UK launched that number of strikes in Iraq. There have been no UK airstrikes in Syria since July 2019. 

Private contractors as well as Australian air force pilots embedded with UK forces have begun to operate British drones according to information uncovered by Drone Wars researcher Peter Burt.  The revelation is contained in data sheets attached to the annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) which cautiously improves its assessment on the delivery of the UK’s new armed drone.

Officials have previously expressed concern that the procurement of the Protector drone – being bought to replace the UK’s Reaper fleet – is at risk as there have been problems recruiting and retaining aircrew to operate armed drones. However, the IPA reports states:

“A steady increase in overall Reaper Force crew numbers has also improved confidence: this has been brought about by improved retention; Royal Australian Air Force exchange officers; and a pathway to using contractors to relieve Royal Air Force personnel at the deployed location. This gave more confidence that the 45 Reaper crews needed for Transition to Protector would be achieved by end 2020.

It adds:

“A contract for crews for the Reaper Launch and Recovery Element based at the deployed location (known as UK1) will take effect in June 2020. This will allow up to seven RAF crews (21 people) to be relieved from the forward deployed location and return to home units, boosting the numbers of crews available for mission control towards the 45 that will be needed for transition to Protector.”

The use of private contractors to operate armed UK Reaper drones on combat missions – even if only at the beginning and end of the mission – is highly controversial.  Recruitment, screening and management of the individuals concerned is outside the military chain of command and raises obvious concerns. In addition, the legal status of these contractors is uncertain.  As they are carrying out a military role they are not considered civilians, yet at the same time, they are not military personnel.  The UK has never officially confirmed where its Reapers are based in the Middle East, but it is widely thought to be the Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait, known as ‘The Rock’.

Australia is purchasing the SkyGuardian drone (which the UK is choosing to call ‘Protector’) for operations from 2022/3 and no doubt is happy for some of its air force pilots embedded with the RAF to acquire related experience operating Reaper drones.

[Update] A contract award on the Pentagon website indicates that General Atomics are providing the personnel to undertake the take-off and landing of the UK’s Reaper missions.

Contract award from Pentagon website: 7 April 2020


Chris Cole, Director of Drone Wars said:

“The fact that the UK is using both private contractors and Australian air force pilots to operate its fleet of armed drones on current combat missions not only raises important legal and accountability issues, but also begs the question why we are spending huge sums doubling the drone fleet when we can’t keep current numbers in the air without help.

As well as operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, British drones are also now being used on other missions, details of which are being kept secret from both parliament and the public. Introducing private contractors into flying combat missions, even in a limited way, is dangerous and short-sighted and should be ended immediately.”


UPDATED on 18 Aug 2020 with details of contract on Pentagon website indicating that US drone company, General Atomics, are providing personnel to undertake UK launch and recovery flights.

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