[FAQ] On Drone Operations

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An officer involved in drone operations talks about the weapons and the ethics and benefits of this type of warfare.

:: How long can the drones stay airborne?

Flight-time to Syria and Iraq is around 90 minutes.  The drones can stay above a target for about 13 hours.

:: How can a pilot thousands of miles away from the battlefield be as accountable as a plane right above it?

They are a weapons system but there is a man in the loop at all times.  No weapon gets delivered without a decision making process.  The pilot feels completely immersed.  Once the pilot gets into work they get an intelligence update on what’s happened, get fully briefed and then fly the mission.

:: How does the kill chain work?

The aircraft beams live pictures to a command centre in Baghdad and another one in the Gulf.  Senior officers and lawyers, watching the feed must approve every strike.  It’s a matter for rules of engagement and laws of armed conflict.  The pilot can refuse to take the shot and the missile can be steered away from the target at the last second if necessary.

:: What weapons are onboard?

The Reaper carries four laser guided Hellfire missiles and two 500lb Paveway bombs – very accurate weapons used against a wide variety of target sets.

:: How high does the drone fly?

The aircraft can fly to quite high-altitudes, on paper as far as 50,000ft but usually between 15-20,000ft.  Where the pilot will position the aircraft in terms of its height and distance from the target will depend on what they are looking at and the weather conditions and the conditions on the ground.  Urban environments, for example, are noisier and drones are less likely to be detected.  In rural areas they could be more easy to detect.  The crews will adjust their altitude for the mission.

:: What are the benefits of a drone compared to a manned aircraft?

Persistence.  It can loiter in an area for a considerable amount of time.  That allows us to absorb what’s happening over a period – to develop a more sophisticated understanding.  You can normally work out any patterns of life they might have.  You can watch an individual for days, weeks, months.

:: How do you deal with firing a missile during the day and going home at night to have dinner with your family?

You’re effectively entering the war every day you go to work.  If you’ve had a long day where you might have been particularly active then there are various techniques you can use to compartmentalise what you have done.  We have the Chaplaincy and Padre team on each station that allow you to discuss anything you might wish.  You’ve got things like using the gym and even the long drive home that nicely separates what you might have just done and what you’re going back home to.

Source: Sky News

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