PRIVATE contractors are being used by British forces to launch and recover Reaper drones in operations which the Ministry of Defence is refusing to disclose, Drone Wars revealed today.
The campaign group made the discover after it obtained data sheets attached to the annual report of the government watchdog Infrastructure and Projects Authority.
The reports revealed that Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilots embedded with British forces were operating the drones on combat operations against Isis and other missions.
Officials previously expressed concern that the Protector drone programme, which will replace Britain’s Reaper fleet from 2023, was at risk following recruitment and air crew retention problems affected the military’s ability to operate armed drones.
However, the IPA reports said that a steady increase in overall Reaper Force crew numbers has improved confidence.
This was brought about by improved retention, the use of RAAF exchange officers and “a pathway to using contractors to relieve Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel at the deployed location,” the report said.
Using private contractors to operate armed drones on combat missions is highly controversial, Drone Wars warned.
Recruitment, screening and management of the individuals concerned will be outside the military chain of command and raises obvious concerns, the group said.
Britain has never officially confirmed where its Reapers are based in the Middle East, but the location is widely thought to be the Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait, known as “The Rock,” it added.
Drone Wars director Chris Cole said: “The fact that the UK is using both private contractors and RAAF pilots to operate its fleet of armed drones on current combat missions not only raises important legal and accountability issues, but also begs the question of why we are spending huge sums doubling the drone fleet when we can’t keep current numbers in the air without help.
“As well as operations against Isis in Iraq and Syria, British drones are also now being used on other missions, details of which are being kept secret from both Parliament and the public.
“Introducing private contractors into flying combat missions, even in a limited way, is dangerous and short-sighted and should be ended immediately.”