ARMED drone missions over Afghanistan have been flown by RAF pilots operating on British soil for the first time.
The Ministry of Defence said Reaper drones had flown missions controlled from RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, where campaign groups yesterday held a protest rally against the practice.
Until last week, RAF crews who control armed drones in Afghanistan had been operating overseas from the USA Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
Last year the Ministry of Defence announced that the UK was doubling the number of armed RAF drones in Afghanistan to ten, with the five new aircraft to be operated remotely from RAF Waddington.
Last Thursday, the MoD confirmed the new aircraft, known as 13 Squadron, which were officially “stood up” in October, started flying missions over Afghanistan last week.
The high-tech Reaper drones are primarily used to gather intelligence on enemy activity on the ground, but they also carry 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles for precision strikes on insurgents.
The ten Reaper aircraft are piloted remotely, but launched and landed with human help at Kandahar air base.
An MoD spokesman said it had been carrying out missions including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but he would not comment on what individual missions had been flown in the past week by drones piloted from the UK.
The MoD said British drones are not being used for targeted assassinations, unlike the Predator drones used by the US in places such as Pakistan.
Estimates suggest that CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,533 people between 2004 and 2013.
About 890 of them were civilians and the vast majority of strikes were carried out under President Barack Obama’s administration, according to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Earlier this year, the UN launched an inquiry into the impact on civilians of drone strikes and other targeted killings, saying a proper legal framework was required to provide accountability.
The MoD said that when weapons are used, the same rules of engagement are followed that govern the use of weapons on manned aircraft.
Air Vice Marshal Sir John Walker, a former chief of defence intelligence, said “having a capability like the drones on the order of battle can only be a good thing” because they could help troops on the ground who are in trouble, if necessary.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, he likened drones to Polaris submarines which, he said, provided an effective nuclear deterrent without being used.
He said terrorists in parts of Afghanistan operate in “a condition of sanctuary”, adding: “How are you going to get them without something like a drone approach?”
Yesterday, anti-war protesters demonstrated outside the base used to control the flights. They say the switching of control of flights to the UK marks a “critical expansion in the nation’s drones programme”.
They are calling on the government to abandon the use of drones, claiming they make it easier for politicians to launch military interventions, and can lead to more civilian casualties. Around 200 protesters, including members of the Stop The War Coalition, CND, The Drone Campaign Network and War on Want, marched from Lincoln to nearby RAF Waddington to demonstrate against the move.
War on Want senior campaigns officer Rafeef Ziadah said: “Drones, controlled far away from conflict zones, ease politicians’ decisions to launch military strikes and order extrajudicial assassinations, without democratic oversight or accountability to the public. Now is the time to ban killer drones – before it is too late.”
Chris Nineham, vice-chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, claimed drones were being used to continue the “deeply unpopular War on Terror” with no public scrutiny.
Calling for armed drones to be banned, Nineham said: “They’re using them to fight wars behind our backs.”
The MoD has defended its use of drones in Afghanistan, which it said have saved the lives of countless military personnel and civilians.
A spokesman said: “UK Reaper aircraft are piloted by highly trained professional military pilots who adhere strictly to the same laws of armed conflict and are bound by the same clearly defined rules of engagement which apply to traditionally manned RAF aircraft.”
Kat Craig, legal director of human rights charity Reprieve, said the use of drones was a blight on the communities the drones monitor.
“The nature of drones means they hover above communities 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
“They present an aerial occupation, almost a form of collective punishment, that causes huge concern and distress to people living in those communities.”
The route of the march from South Common along the A15 to the peace camp site opposite RAF Waddington saw the road closed in phases to limit inconvenience to motorists.