Five new Reaper drones, the most recent addition to the RAF’s arsenal, have started combat operations in Afghanistan, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The unmanned aircraft, which are based at Kandahar airfield, are being used to collect intelligence to help UK and USAF operations, with the latest deployment doubling the RAF’s Reaper force in the region. The new drones will serve alongside the British Army’s Hermes 450 UAVs, carrying out surveillance in support of ground troops, as well as targeting for Hellfire missiles.
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Their ability to provide real-time video to commanders on the ground is said to be vital to efforts to cement security in Afghanistan as allied forces pull out of the country. The aircraft, dubbed by some as "eyes in the sky", will be operated by XIII Sqn from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, and 39 Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in the USA. The MoD has been keen to step away from the term "drone" when talking about unmanned air systems, because it elicits ideas of unaccountable computerised technology.
In December the MoD said there had been more than 54,000 hours of operations using Reaper in Afghanistan, with only 459 weapons fired - less than one weapon for every 120 hours flying - while non-armed reconnaissance Unmanned Air Systems had flown almost three times as many operations, flying over 160,000 hours.
Announcing the latest Reapers, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology Philip Dunne said: "These new aircraft give the RAF enhanced Force Protection capability in support of UK, ISAF and Afghan troops. As we focus on the drawdown of UK forces from Afghanistan, the ability to provide force protection will become increasingly important and Reaper allows us to provide this assurance, remotely and without significant ground presence."
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Air Commodore Al Gillespie, who is responsible for the command and control of UK Air assets over Afghanistan, added: "These aircraft will support UK, ISAF and Afghan forces as they work to protect the people of Afghanistan. They provide vital intelligence and precise strike capability without putting our servicemen and women at risk. As we drawn down from Afghanistan it is precisely this technology that will keep us one step ahead and allow us to combat internal security in the country."