US military drones set to fly from UK from 2024

Top: US RQ-4 Global Hawk, bottom: US MQ-9 Reaper

The US Air Force (USAF) has applied to the UK’s air regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to change airspace rules to allow RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper drones to fly from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

The application for Global Hawk flights envisages them beginning in 2024.  A recent update of the Reaper application states that while “the USAFE requirement for MALE RPAS at RAF Fairford remains” it is temporarily pausing the process while it reassesses how to comply with the current regulatory framework.  While nominally described as an ‘RAF’ base, Fairford is wholly operated by the US Air Force.

Currently, drones that fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) are not allowed to fly in the UK unless in segregated airspace. The USAF, through the Ministry of Defence (MoD), is seeking to put in place segregated corridors to allow these drones to transit through UK airspace.  The RAF is currently going through the same process to enable it to fly the UK’s new ‘Protector’ armed drones from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.  The USAF may be awaiting the CAA’s decision in this case (due very soon) before proceeding with its application to fly Reaper drones.

According to one document submitted to the CAA, the “working assumption” by the USAF is that the corridors would be activated 2-3 times per week but they are “exploring activation periods that exceed these assumption, both in frequency and time periods of utilisation.”  The proposal is that the drones would take off and land overnight: “all activations will be between 1 hour after sunset and 1 hour before sunrise unless in extremis.”

Lack of oversight

If this change is agreed there will be very little chance of the public  knowing when or where these US drones will be used operationally.  While the government has said previously that combat operations from US bases in the UK are subject to “joint decision” in reality the government has little say or control over operations from US bases as the framework under which they operate  – the 1951 Status of Forces Agreement – gives jurisdiction to the US, not the UK.

This is a very significant move.  While the war in Ukraine will no doubt be at the forefront of people’s thinking in regard to this development, the US uses drones – surveillance and armed – to enable it undertake air strikes right across the globe, both in areas of armed conflict, but also beyond for so-called ‘targeted killings’. The UN, many individual states and international law experts have condemned the use of drones for these unlawful operations describing them as extrajudicial killings which undermine global peace and security.

Allowing US drones to operate from Fairford directly involves the UK in the US’ worldwide drone operations which have killed hundreds, possibly thousands of innocent civilians. Any legal action arising for these strikes could well involve the UK.

A 2021 New York Times investigation detailed consistent patterns of failed intelligence, decision-making and execution behind US drone strikes.

In 2022, families of the victims of a 2018 US drone strike in Libya filed a criminal complaint against the commander of the Italian Sigonella Air Base from where US drones fly.  Madogaz Musa Abdullah, one of the complainants, lost his brother Nasser in the strike. Nasser, along with the majority killed in the strike, were members of the national armed forces of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord. Madogaz Abdullah said: “They claimed that our sons were terrorists and ended their lives without any evidence. We want the Italian government to listen to us and to stop [the US] from killing our people. We call on both governments to apologize and for the Italian government to open a transparent investigation and to hold to account those responsible for authorizing the strike.”  The case is currently on-going.

Ukraine

It also seems likely that US drones flying from the UK could be used to undertake surveillance operations around the war in Ukraine.  Both Global Hawk and Reaper drones have reportedly been used to undertake intelligence gathering operations in the region.  In March 2023, a US Reaper drone crashed into the Baltic Sea after a collision with a Russian aircraft.

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and its ongoing war  – and in particular its aerial bombing of cities and populated areas –  is absolutely awful and must stopped.  But it’s becoming increasingly easier to see the US, UK, and other NATO countries being drawn more directly into an armed conflict with Russia.  Any such escalation would be disastrous, not only for the people of Ukraine and the wider region, but also seriously risks a catastrophic nuclear event.

Safety issues

Outside of these geopolitical concerns, there also significant safety issues.

Recovered fuselage of Global Hawk drone that crashed in 2018 following engine failure due to fuel leak. Credit: USAF

While the military use of large drones has have grown significantly over the past decade, with their use almost becoming normalised, the technology itself is still far from mature and, simply put, they crash a lot.

In recent years there has been four mid-flight crashes of the larger Global Hawk drone and more than 80 crashes of Reaper drones over the past decade. These accidents happened for a wide variety of reasons – mechanical failure, electrical problems, weather issues, pilot error, lost link  – and so cannot be solved by a technical ‘fix’.  Many of these crashes have occurred during the take-off or landing phase, said to be the most complicated part of flying remotely.  In a  densely populated country like the UK, which also has very crowded skies, the regulator should look very closely at the safety record of these systems despite the undoubtedly political pressure they will come under.

Director of Drone Wars UK, Chris Cole said:

“ Given the history of the US use of armed drones over the past two decades, in particular their use outside of warzones for so-called targeted killing of suspects and the overwhelming evidence that such strikes often cause civilian casualties, the UK should simply not allow US drones to be based here.  Aside from the geopolitical issues, there are also real safety fears as these large military drones regularly crash.  We very much hope the regulator will resist the undoubted pressure and carefully scrutinize the safety record of these systems and the dangers they pose to the public and other airspace users.”

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