RAF has fired missiles in Afghanistan using US drones, MoD reveals

MoD discloses for first time how British crews using unmanned US aircraft have launched missiles in conflict zones

British pilots have launched at least 39 missile strikes against suspected Taliban insurgents from American drones based in Afghanistan, according to new figures.

The details have emerged from the Ministry of Defence, which has for the first time disclosed how RAF crews using unmanned US aircraft have launched missiles in conflict zones.

The MoD insists that British drone pilots always operate under UK rules of engagement, whatever asset they are flying.

However, campaigners have called for increased scrutiny over the use of the aircraft and condemned a lack of transparency about the programmes run by the American and British armed forces.

British crews piloted US Reaper and Predator drones in Afghanistan on 2,150 occasions between 2006 and 2012 – an average of almost once a day.

That does not include the thousands of missions British forces have flown with their own fleet of 10 Reaper aircraft.

The MoD has also for the first time provided a breakdown of the number of missiles fired by UK drones every month between May 2008 and April 2013.

These attacks peaked in November 2011, when 25 missiles were fired. There has been only one month in which no missiles were launched – December 2008.

Latest figures show RAF drones fired 94 Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan during 2013, bringing the total number of munitions and bombs fired by British unmanned systems since 2008 to 457.

The figures were released last week, nine months after a freedom of information (FoI) request, to Drone Wars UK, a website that researches and monitors the British use of unmanned technologies.

The website’s creator, Chris Cole, said: “This latest revelation once again demonstrates the secrecy surrounding the use of armed drones and once again underlines the need for increased scrutiny and greater transparency about their use.

“The nature of drone technology means they are being used with little or no public accountability.

“Unless we act now to curb this new weaponry it seems inevitable that drones will increasingly be used to launch secret and unaccountable military attacks leading to global instability and increased insecurity.”

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch added: “One of the problems with drone programmes from the beginning has been a near-total lack of transparency about the scale of the programmes, where they were operating, what their goals are, and who they are targeting and how. If it is now not even possible to know which country has its finger on the button, that adds yet another layer of confusion which will make accountability even more elusive.”

The MoD statement to Drone Wars UK makes clear British pilots were flying US drones in Afghanistan long before the RAF had any unmanned aircraft of their own; the UK did not start flying its own Reapers in Afghanistan until mid-2008.

The FoI reply states: “Between October 2006 and 31 December 2012, UK aircrew had flown approximately 2,150 operational missions using US Reaper and Predator remotely piloted air systems (RPAS) in support of operations …read more