On Thursday 25 April, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that its Reaper drones had finally moved to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire; they had previously been operated from a US Air Force base in Creech, Nevada. The move to Lincolnshire had been expected for some time after 13 Squadron, a “remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) squadron that will utilise ground control stations to fly reaper RPAS deployed to Afghanistan” were formally stood up on 26 October 2012. The Daily Telegraph reported that there were 100 trained personnel to operate the drones now based at Waddington. According to The Guardian, the benefit offered by this transfer was not that more flights would be operational but that, due to the time differences, operators in Waddington could now work in relay with their US colleagues.
This news was met with a protest from anti-drone campaigners, including War on Want and Drone Wars UK, held outside the base on 27 April. Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK emphasised his concerns at the serious legal, ethical and moral issues raised drones; while the War on Want focused upon the lack of accountability in use of this weapon.
While the Ministry of Defence has emphasised that the use of armed Reapers in Afghanistan is focused on terrorist suspects, questions have been raised about the number of civilians alleged to have been killed in UK drone strikes. To date, the MoD have claimed only one incident which resulted in the deaths of 4 civilians in March 2011; a stark contrast with the substantial number of civilians killed in a similar number of drone strike undertaken by the United States in Pakistan.
Parliamentary Questions have shown serious flaws in the approach taken by the MoD in recording casualties. For example, Baroness Stern, in March 2013, asked about the number of claims for compensation brought by Afghan civilians and how many of these claims were linked to drone strikes. In response, Lord Hever said:
A total of 3,205 claims have been submitted to the Ministry of Defence by Afghan civilians in the last three years. Records are not held in a format that would enable identification of any claims that arise from the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles.
This built on a previous answer he gave in which he stated that the Government do not record civilian casualties “because of the immense difficulty and risks that would be involved in collecting robust data”. Such responses cause real concerns that there may be in fact be a far greater number of civilian casualties caused by UK drone strikes in Afghanistan; through a combination of poor recording and the absence of transparency such figures remain obscured.
It is hoped that as the UK’s Reapers are now to be operated from UK soil that this marks an increased commitment to monitoring and evaluating the impact of the use of this weapon, particularly in establishing the numbers of civilians killed.