British sovereign airspace has been used by top secret US drones, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). On three occasions in the past month, an unarmed Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft, which cost around £130 million each, flew through UK airspace as part of a NATO exercise.
According to the MoD, the vehicles flew from a base in Italy, through southern Europe and into UK airspace, before heading east to Norway and then returning to its base. The drones flew at an altitude of 50,000 feet, far higher than the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft, in what the MoD describes as "controlled airspace".
The exercise was designed to see how easily remotely-piloted air systems (RPAS) could be integrated within the existing structures of more traditional military aviation. "It is good to see existing airspace procedures enabling the seamless integration of remotely-piloted air systems, such as the unarmed Global Hawk aircraft, within European airspace,” said Air Vice Marshal Phil Osborn.
"This trial will have helped with the development of the Nato alliance ground surveillance system (AGS) and the future airspace integration of RPAS."
The AGS trial, codenamed Unified Vision, boasts five Global Hawk drones, all homed at the Sigonella air base in Italy. The drones, which have a top speed of 357mph, were recently acquired by 14 NATO countries (excluding the UK). Their future deployment is on the agenda for the forthcoming NATO summit in Wales in September.
The operation of drones within UK airspace is likely to intensify fears that the unmanned aircraft, which are routinely used to target Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, could one day be flying over British cities as part of military or police reconnaissance.
According to Washington, Global Hawk drones are currently being used in the search for the missing girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria.