THE Royal Navy has launched its first drone in an operational theatre as it stepped up its campaign against Somali pirates.
Somalilandsun – The Scaneagle unmanned aerial system (UAS) was launched from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay in the Gulf and flew to a height of up to 19,500ft.
The UAS was then brought back by a pilot on the ship using remote controls after it had acted as an eye in the sky over the horizon.
The Scaneagle is one of two in a £30million deal with Boeing and each UAS will fly up to 300 hours a month.
The UAS is catapulted off the back of ships and then recovered by flying them back to be caught by a wire extended over the side. It is expected to be used shortly to spot pirates threatening shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Details emerged as Defence Secretary Philip Hammond threw open the RAF’s secret base for controversial drones – RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
RAF crews here and at the USAF base in Creech, Nevada, fly the Reaper on surveillance and attack missions over Afghanistan.
The 35ft long remotely piloted air system can unleash weapons on insurgents with the trigger being pulled thousands of miles away.
In 54,000 hours of flying over Afghanistan it has fired 459 weapons, usually Hellfire missiles in support of Coalition troops under attack from insurgents.
The drones are controversial and have been branded robot killers.
But Mr Hammond insisted that their crews are subject to the same rules of engagement and legal controls as the pilots of fighter bombers such as Tornados and Typhoons.
He said: “In well over 400 lethal strikes by British UAS’s we know of just one strike where sadly there were civilian casualties.
“But civilian casualties also result from strikes by manned aircraft. Our challenge is not to guarantee that they never happen but to minimise that risk to as low as possible.”
He added: “UAS’s are certainly part of the future. We expect they will be part of the British posture alongside manned aircraft. No-one knows what the balance will be between manned and unmanned systems.”
Mr Hammond also said there are moves to open up European air space to UAS’s with one expert predicting that the market in the UK alone could be worth up to £20billion within six years.
Mr Hammond, who said possible civilian uses include maritime search and rescue and border protection, said he expected progress in UAS’s being licensed to use European air space.
At RAF Waddington the full range of UAS’s used by the military was on display from the Army’s tiny Black Hornet mini helicopter to Watchkeeper which has a 33ft wing span.
The Black Hornet weighs just 16grammes, fits in the palm of a man’s hand and can be put up by soldiers to see what the enemy is up to in their immediate area.
Watchkeeper, which will enter service with the Royal Artillery next year, can stay airborne for 16 hours and relay information to troops on the ground day and night.
Meanwhile the Royal Navy revealed that its Scaneagle has had its first trial in an operational theatre.
Commander Bow Wheaton, 46, from Dorking, said: “It was flown for the first time in theatre today and is due to enter service next month.
“Skippers get an unprecedented situation report from this eye in the sky.
“It lets us look for the enemy before they see us. It could be used to look for pirates, to spot a threat to your ship or to look ahead to a choke point where the enemy may have assembled small craft loaded with explosives. This would let you do something about it or avoid it.
“And at night it would help the skipper decide which lights out there are friendly – otherwise he is just looking at dots on a radar screen.”
The drones provide live video footage of incredible detail to commander son the ground, even letting them see what weapons the enemy are carrying.
One RAF Intelligence Analyst, who would only give his name as Corporal Billy, said: “There have been occasions when we have spotted disturbed earth which has turned out to be where insurgents have planted an improvised explosive device. Finding that is very fulfilling.
“Every time we have fired a missile we have been supporting our guys on the ground who more often than not were under fire. We are helping to save their lives which is just as fulfilling as spotting an IED.”