UK to Double Drone Fleet, Move Control From Nevada to England

While David Petraeus continues stewing over whether his request to expand the CIA’s fleet of drones will be honored, The Guardian announced yesterday that the UK will double its drone fleet and move control of its drones from Nevada to England.

It will come as a surprise to most that the UK already has a fleet of five drones. They are operated out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. From the article in The Guardian:

The UK’s existing five Reaper drones, which are used to target suspected insurgents in Helmand, have been operated from Creech air force base in Nevada because Britain has not had the capability to fly them from here.


The most recent figures from the Ministry of Defence show that, by the end of September, the UK’s five Reapers in Afghanistan had flown 39,628 hours and fired 334 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs at suspected insurgents.

The blog Drone Wars UK has collected the public reports it could find of the missiles fired by the UK’s fleet of drones. Skimming the list of entries, it appears that so far, the bulk of UK drone strikes have been aimed at presumed insurgents in the process of engaging with coalition troops in Afghanistan.

For information on how these attacks have turned out, we go back to The Guardian:

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment.

However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.

It would seem that in learning from the US how to operate drones, the UK also has learned from the US how to declare with certainty that exceedingly few civilians have been killed, but at the same time admit that it’s just too darned difficult to count all those bad guys we splat. The public is asked to simultaneously trust the military that civilians aren’t killed but we must accept that verifying just who has been killed is not possible.

It seems that the UK has built its own video game room drone control facility:

Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

The most recent post currently at Drone Wars UK has conveniently provided a map for the location of this facility, presumably to aid protesters who may wish to be there on Friday when the new RAF squadron (“XIII”) is officially commissioned.

With a fleet of ten drones and the ability to control them anywhere in the world from the facility in Lincolnshire, how long will it take for mission creep to set in? After all, NATO says that it will have withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Where will these drones go then? As the article in The Guardian points out, there are not many areas within the UK where drones can be allowed to fly under current regulations. The allure of developing their own “hit list” must be overwhelming to the folks at 10 Downing Street about now.

Oh, and one last thought. The next James Bond film is set to release in about two and a half weeks. It’s title? That would be “Skyfall“. That is most likely just a coincidence, but seems entirely fitting as further advertisement of the fact that the UK is now announcing its drone capability and independence.

Did Iran Hack Our Drone?

I’ve been saying for some time that America’s hubris about drones will end as soon as one of our antagonists figures out how to hack them.

Which is why it’s interesting that Iran has updated its claims to have “shot down” an American drone to suggest they had “brought it down.” (Note, I found this statement on the Mehr website, but not the Fars one.)

The wreckage of the Lockheed-Martin RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone was largely intact after it was downed, the Fars news agency said.

“Iran’s army has downed an intruding RQ-170 American drone in eastern Iran,” Arabic-language al-Alam TV said, quoting an anonymous source.

“The spy drone, which has been downed with little damage, was seized by the armed forces,” the news network added.

The cyber warfare unit managed to take over controls of the drone and bring it down, a military official said, according to the TV.

An unnamed military official also told the Fars that Iran’s response “will not be limited to the country’s borders.” [my emphasis]

And after some initial doubts that the Iranian claims were correct, ISAF has now admitted that they lost control of a drone last week.

The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week. The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.

Though the US remains coy over whether DOD was operating the drone (suggesting an Afghan mission) or the CIA was (suggesting a non-Afghan mission).

Although the Sentinel was developed for the Air Force, the U.S. official declined to confirm whether it was the U.S. military or the U.S. intelligence community operating the drone at the time of the incident.

Mind you, lurking in the background are the two recent attacks on Iran–the assassination of Hassan Moqaddam and the explosion in Isfahan. With both those previous explosions, Iran has officially offered conflicting stories about whether or not there was an explosion or why.  If the drone was conducting reconnaissance of missile runs over Iran, both sides might say Iran “brought it down” to avoid discussions of where the drone was operating.

Remember, though: less than two months ago, Wired revealed that someone had gotten keylogger software onto Creech Air Force Base’s system in Nevada. So someone already infiltrated the Air Force drone system. It’s just not clear who did so.

Update: Also remember the probable disinformation from a few weeks back saying that the Israelis deliberately let Hezbollah take down one of its drones over Lebanon, which it then detonated to blow up a weapons depot. One reason the ISAF might admit to losing a drone is if it wasn’t their drone.

Update: This appears to confirm the Iranians were right. Though I would suggest both sides still might be lying about aspects of this.