Britain takes direct control of armed drones in Afghanistan

IssueJune 2011
News by Chris Cole

On 13 May, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced it is forming a second RAF drones squadron to be based at RAF Waddington, Lincs. RAF pilots will then control the UK’s armed Reaper drones that fly in Afghanistan from Waddington rather than the Creech US air force (USAF) base in Nevada. Defence secretary, Liam Fox noted that this followed the doubling of the UK’s Reaper capability to ten aircraft, an increased investment of £135m in drone warfare.

A recent article by two senior MoD scientists in an obscure US military journal (The International C2 Journal) suggests that while the UK military says it has no intention of developing a fully-autonomous armed drone, the government is continuing the background research work which would enable such a system to be developed.

Pakistan opposition

In other drone news, even before the killing of Osama bin Laden (where US president Barack Obama consciously decided not to use a drone or missile attack), there was a fair amount of speculation – but no official confirmation – that the CIA has been asked by Pakistan to leave the Shamsia air base in Pakistan.

The CIA are said to use Shamsia to launch drones against targets inside Pakistan (although the drones are controlled remotely from the US), leading to growing anger. Even senior Pakistani military and political figures are now calling for the drone strikes to end.

The CIA Predator drones, which are a different “fleet” to the USAF drones used in Afghanistan, are likely to be moved to Afghanistan, but continue to attack targets inside Pakistan.

Following the killing of bin Laden, a US drone strike in Yemen on 5 May was an attempt to assassinate US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, said to be the head of al-Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula. Two Saudi brothers were killed in the strike but Al-Awlaki apparently escaped. Al-Awlaki has been placed on a list of people approved for targeted killing by president Obama, an unusual move in that he is a US citizen. Al-Awlaki’s father and the US civil rights group ACLU have attempted to have him removed from the list but have so far failed.

On 6 May, four US drones attacked a compound in North Waziristan killing at least 17 people. This was not only the first drone strike in Pakistan since the killing of bin Laden, but also the first strike since Pakistani politician Imran Khan threatened further civil disobedience against NATO supply routes if drone strikes did not cease.