Inside Britain's military drone base

Inside Britain's military drone base

Military chiefs have opened the doors to Britain’s drone nerve centre in Lincolnshire for the first time, allowing cameras to see how the unmanned aircraft are operated and the “pilots” who operate them.

Military chiefs have for the first time opened the doors to Britain’s drone headquarters where pilots in rural Lincolnshire use satellite links to fly missions on the other side of the world.

Pilots of 13 Squadron at RAF Waddington fly armed MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are based in a Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan.

The five reaper aircraft are part of Britain’s growing fleet of hundreds of unmanned military aircraft.

Britain’s drones range from the vast 66ft wingspan Reapers armed with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, to tiny hand held mini helicopters to allow troops to see around corners or over walls.

Commanders said they wanted to counter perceptions the controversial aircraft are unaccountable, robotic killers.

Air Vice-Marshal Phil Osborn said: “We are comfortable that when we release a weapon, we do it under really tight rules of engagement and we do it under exactly the same restrictions as manned aircraft.”

Reaper aircraft have flown 54,000 hours of missions over Afghanistan since 2007 and carried out 459 air strikes.

Britain’s Reaper drones were at first all flown from a US Air Force base in Nevada, but since April missions have also been controlled by pilots stationed at RAF Waddington.

The two control cabins sit behind barbed wire fencing and electronic security turnstiles in a corner of a hangar in the base.

Each Reaper has a pilot, someone controlling its scanners and an intelligence analyst scanning the film it beams back. The three-man teams work six days on and three days off, in shifts lasting eight to 10 hours.

Commanders say the greatest advantage of the aircraft is its ability to loiter over the battlefield, allowing pilots to spend hours observing a target before deciding to open fire.

More than 99 per cent of the work done by Britain’s drones is surveillance. The aircraft are playing a growing role on the battlefield and have become increasingly important for operations in Afghanistan.

Large unarmed Hermes 450 drones can cruise above the battlefield for 17 hours at a time and beam back detailed pictures to commanders. Tiny Black Hornet mini helicopters weighing half an ounce can be carried by patrols and launched to look around corners.

The Tarantula Hawk, which sounds like a lawnmower in action, is used by bomb disposal engineers to hunt for Taliban bombs by hovering above roads in Helmand province.

A Royal Navy drone, the Scan Eagle, made its first operational flight this week when it was launched by a catapult off the flight deck of the RFA Cardigan Bay in the Indian Ocean.

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