The United States and Britain are the biggest users of drones in Afghanistan with a fleet of unmanned reconnaissance vehicles and hunter-killers. Both air forces have made thousands of sorties. The U.S. has used MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones to attack insurgent homes and training grounds in North Waziristan, Pakistan, where there are reports of a high number of civilian casualties. Recently, the Royal Air Force announced that it was forming a dedicated UAV squadron to pilot a fleet of 10 U.S.-designed Reaper attack drones. The Reaper is capable of carrying up to 14 Hellfire missiles and smart bombs. It can stay airborne for up to 28 hours and climb to more than 7,500 metres.
Both the American and British UAV squads control their Afghanistan missions from a bunker in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The U.K. Reapers have flown 23,400 hours and fired 176 missiles and laser-guided bombs. The United States has reportedly launched more than 250 attacks since 2004 in Pakistan alone.
A rising concern is civilian deaths. On March 24, a U.K. Reaper killed four Afghan civilians and injured two others when it attacked two pickup trucks in Helmand province. The trucks contained explosives but an investigation into the attack revealed they were also carrying civilians. So-called friendly fire, which is always a problem in war, may be increased with drones. In April, a U.S. Predator drone killed a U.S. Marine and a Navy medic in Helmand province with a missile when they were mistaken for insurgents. Several years ago, a fully armed U.S. drone went haywire and started flying toward Tajikistan. The U.S. air force scrambled a manned fighter and shot it down just before it reached the border.
Attack drones have proved effective in following armed insurgents to their hiding places and then killing them with missiles. In one case, a U.S. drone tracked insurgents to a hole in a mud wall from where they fired on coalition forces. The drone destroyed the wall with a missile, killing the insurgents.
Civilian casualties a concern with drones, Vancouver Sun, July 23, 2011