The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has started command and control operations of its MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in Afghanistan from a newly constructed facility at Royal Air Force (RAF) Waddington in Lincolnshire, UK.
Flown by the No. 13 Squadron personnel using ground control stations (GCS) earlier this week, the move marks the first time the UAVs have been operated from the UK, more than five years after their acquisition for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan.
To date, the UK has been controlling the RAF’s five Reaper drones from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, US, following launch from an airfield within Afghanistan, as it did not have the capability to control them from home bases.
Undisclosed military officials were cited by Guardian as saying that the 13 Squadron pilots in collaboration with the personnel in the US will now take charge of Reapers from an advanced and sophisticated UAV centre at RAF Waddington.
The centre, with three operating terminals, was built in 2012 under the supervision of the UK MoD, as part of the 2010 strategic defence and security review.
The 39 Squadron will not be disbanded and will continue operations until the end of 2014, when all Nato-led coalition forces will pull out from Afghanistan, the officials added.
Initially deployed unarmed in Afghanistan, the RAF Reapers have since been equipped with 500lb laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles by the MoD, which also ordered additional five units to tackle Taliban insurgents in October 2012.
Manufactured by General Atomics, the MQ-9 Reaper is a medium-to-high altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAV designed to conduct close air support, air interdiction and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions.
Announced two days before a protest organised by Drone Campaign Network outside RAF Waddington, the move has also attracted sharp criticism from the Stop the War Coalition, which says the switching of control to the UK represents "an unwelcome expansion in the country’s UAV programme".
Image: An MQ-9 Reaper UAV readies to land after completing a mission in Afghanistan. Photo: US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson.