Drones are being flown in Afghanistan by UK-based pilots for the first time. The Ministry of Defence say the vehicles save lives – but protesters say they are a tool to fight wars “behind our backs”.
It’s not a dramatic shift in terms of geography – but protesters say it’s a big ideological moment.
The RAF has begun piloting drones used in Afghanistan from UK soil for the first time. This is by no means the UK’s first foray into the world of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare, but in the past the vehicles have been piloted offshore.
The Afghanistan drones were flown from a base in Nevada.
Campaigners responded to the change by staging a march from Lincoln to RAF Waddington, saying now is the time to interrogate the use of drones in modern warfare “before it is too late”. Around 400 protesters attended the march.
They’re using them to fight wars behind our backs. Chris Nineham, Stop the War
War on Want senior campaigns officer Rafeef Ziadah said: “Drones, controlled far away from conflict zones, ease politicians’ decisions to launch military strikes and order extrajudicial assassinations, without democratic oversight or accountability to the public.
“Now is the time to ban killer drones – before it is too late.”
Chris Nineham, vice-chairman of the Stop the War Coalition, claimed drones were being used to continue the “deeply unpopular war on terror” with no public scrutiny.
Calling for armed drones to be banned, Mr Nineham said: “They’re using them to fight wars behind our backs.”
The RAF announced on Thursday that it had commenced supporting troops in Afghanistan with “armed intelligence and surveillance missions” using Reaper drones remotely piloted from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said: “UK Reaper aircraft are piloted by highly trained professional military pilots who adhere strictly to the same laws of armed conflict and are bound by the same clearly defined rules of engagement which apply to traditionally manned RAF aircraft.”
UK soldiers embedded with the US Air Force have flown US drones in support of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya on approximately 2,150 missions since 2006, the government revealed this week.
While the MoD maintains that it mainly uses drones for “intelligence and surveillance”, UAVs have become so controversial because of their use by the United States in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, where hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes.
The United Nations has even called for President Barack Obama to “stay within the law” on drone use as the country’s use of the machines increases in countries like Yemen.
But Dr Matt Bennett, who runs UAV systems company SkyCircuits, told Channel 4 News that drones did have the potential to reduce war casualties – although he accepted that the civilian deaths would clearly be the element which stuck in people’s minds.
“People I know on the ground say UAVs can be seen as a saviour. It’s all about information – they can see the problems that may occur before they become a risk to people. The vast majority of UAVs are used by the military to see what is going on,” he said.
“The argument the military would put forward is that any loss of life UAVs may cause is intended to save many more lives.”