As the UK doubles its fleet of armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan and starts shifting their control to British soil, new figures have underlined the lack of credibility of UK claims concerning civilian deaths at the hands of these remotely-piloted killing machines.
On 26 October, Number 13 Squadron was reformed at RAF Waddington, from where it will start piloting five new British Reapers in early December. Until now, British Reapers have been piloted by RAF personnel from Creech air force base in Nevada, USA.
According to a 1 November statement by defence minister Andrew Robathan, the UK has conducted at least 345 drone strikes in Afghanistan since May 2008, firing 293 Hellfire missiles amd 52 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs.
More strikes are known to have taken place since these figures were compiled.
Britain currently deploys a total of 335 drones in Afghanistan, including the tiny 'Black Hornet' and the Israeli-built Hermes 450. However, only the Reapers are armed.
Peace campaigner Chris Cole – who first drew attention to the figures on his Drone Wars UK blog – notes that the number of British strikes in Afghanistan (345) almost exactly matches the number of reported strikes by the CIA in Pakistan (350).
An analysis of credible reports by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the reported civilian toll from the CIA attacks at 475-885 deaths. By contrast, the MoD admit to only 4 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in a single incident in March 2011.
'The figures suggest [either] that the UK is 100–200 times better at drone warfare than the US,' Cole notes, or that the UK figures 'are just not credible'.
Meanwhile, new figures from the US air force have revealed that there have been 1,160 US drone strikes in Afghanistan since the beginning of 2009, with drone strikes making up 9% (333 strikes) of the 3,600 aerial attacks in the country this year, up from 5% in 2011.
'The [drones] are growing in importance while the rest of the military is receding,' notes Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired magazine's national security blog.
According to The Guardian, the British government ‘has yet to decide’ whether its Reapers will remain in Afghanistan after 2014, following the withdrawal of NATO 'combat forces'.