For too long, the term "drone" has been used to scandalise and smear the activities of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). The most commonly propagated falsehood is that UAS are robots flying around the world indiscriminately firing on, often innocent, targets. It's time to sort the fact from the fiction.
There is no doubt that UAS save lives. Not just those of our brave troops, but the lives of civilians in Afghanistan. Providing vital intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, Commanders are able to see whether roads are safe for our troops to drive down, whether there is a massing of munitions at a particular location, and the general pattern of life in a village or area to identify any change in behaviour that may pose a threat.
Yesterday, for the first time, the Ministry of Defence opened the doors of its Remotely Piloted Air Systems control centre at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. From this base, members of XIII Squadron remotely pilot the RAF's Reaper aircraft in Afghanistan. Although physically unmanned, the Reaper aircraft, like all the UK's UAS assets, are remotely operated at all times by highly trained members of the Armed Forces. Their pilots are subject to the same strict rules of engagement as the crew of traditional aircraft.
Of the six types of UAS that the UK operates, only Reaper carries weapons. Reaper has flown 54,000 hours and has fired 459 precision weapons. That is just one weapon deployed for every 120 hours of flying. Clearly, this dispels the myth that drones are laws unto themselves and drop bombs indiscriminately over Afghanistan.
In fact, one of the most common myths I want to debunk is that UAS are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan. Let me be clear, the majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by insurgents, not UAS. In over 50,000 Reaper flying hours, there has only been one single operation that resulted in the deaths of civilians. In March 2011, a significant quantity of explosives was destroyed in an attack on two pick-up trucks that killed two insurgents. Sadly, the destruction of the explosives also resulted in the deaths of four Afghan civilians. These are four deaths too many and are deeply regrettable. An independent investigation concluded that the RAF crew acted in full accordance with the rules of engagement that both they and pilots of manned aircraft adhere to.
I can understand that it might be difficult to fathom how complex Reaper operations in Afghanistan can be run from Lincolnshire. Questions such as 'surely it cannot be safe', and 'the distance must desensitise pilots' naturally arise. At the extreme, critics claim that UAS are too akin to video games for pilots to recognise the seriousness of the work they are undertaking. This could not be more untrue and ignores the extensive training and personal experience of the highly skilled personnel who have been chosen for this critical role.
The pilots and specially trained members of the Armed Forces who remotely operate UAS do not face the same level of direct danger as crews of manned aircraft. This allows them a greater amount of time in the air to assess the situation and exercise their judgement in a more measured way, free from concerns about their survival.
The use of UAS decreases, not increases, the likelihood of civilian casualties. UAS can monitor areas of interest for a considerable period of time, giving crews vital intelligence to conduct detailed assessments of potential targets and the wider environment. Crews use the invaluable intelligence to minimise the risk of civilian casualties or unnecessary damage to property. There is no doubt that the reconnaissance they provide reduces the risks to ground forces and civilians.
Looking ahead, the MoD has no plans to create weapons that operate without human control. It is imperative that trained members of the Armed Forces are always involved in the command and control of UAS.
In the past, the important role that UAS play in saving the lives of civilians and Armed Forces personnel has not been explained clearly enough. I hope this has gone some way to dispel many of the commonly held myths and misunderstandings around their capability and use. The work of our UAS crews, both here and in Afghanistan deserves the recognition and support of the public.