Pilotless strikes on Iraq by RAF

The London Times

October 3, 2004

ROYAL Air Force officers have joined a team of American pilots based in the desert near Las Vegas that is flying and firing missiles from unmanned Predator spy planes more than 7,000 miles away in Iraq, writes Stephen Grey. The British airmen are part of a 24-hour operation that controls the Predators remotely by satellite, secretly filming militants attacking American and British troops and using Hellfire air-to-ground missiles to destroy enemy positions.

The RAF pilots, like their American counterparts, are split between the bases of Balad, near Baghdad, where Predator pilots are responsible for the landing and takeoff of the 27ft craft, and Nellis, just outside Las Vegas, from where most of the remainder of the Predator’s 18-hour missions are controlled. The RAF has confirmed British involvement but declined to detail how many pilots were taking part.

Kurt Scheible, 41, the US commander of Predator operations at Balad, said it was cheaper and more efficient to base most pilots far from the combat zone. “When I’m back in Nellis I can fly a mission over Iraq with the Predator, and then go home and take my children to a ball game,” he said.

The Predators have provided vital assistance in pinpointing targets for other aircraft to strike. Virtually impossible to see or hear from the ground, they can also send close-up video pictures of a battlefield, day and night.

The Predator control room at Balad looks more like a television studio than an aircraft cockpit. The plane’s two operators — the pilot and the sensor operator — sit side by side with two screens above them, operating the craft with a keyboard and two joysticks.

The Predators’ prominence reflects a growing use of air power in Iraq. Around 1,300 strike missions a month are now being flown there — up from 750 in summer last year.

Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Weggeman, 39, commander of a squadron of F-16 jet fighters based at Balad, said he told his pilots they had to be as accurate as if they were “shooting into the backsides of fleas”.

Despite his efforts, however, there is still widespread concern in Iraq, shared by some within the military, that too many innocent lives are being lost in airstrikes.











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