UK's drone nerve centre unveiled for the first time as Philip Hammond defends use of unmanned aircrafts

Philip Hammond with Sergeant Alexander Buchanan in front of a drone. Credit: Ministry of Defence

The Defence Secretary has been defending the use of unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan as the RAF unveiled the nerve centre of its controversial drone programme for the first time.

Never before have our cameras been allowed to see how the drones are operated and the "pilots" who operate them.

Philip Hammond was visiting the operation centre in Lincolnshire.

Inside two metal containers situated in a large hanger at RAF Waddington, a three man team "flies" the drones in front of a bank of screens.

The aircraft provides surveillance for the British military and strike targets - but only inside the Afghanistan border, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Bombardier Lousie Banton with the Desert Hawk at the 13 Squadron. Credit: Ministry of Defence

The US has been heavily criticised for striking targets and killing civilians in the border areas of Pakistan.

The most controversial of the British fleet of drones is the Reaper which is the only unmanned aircraft that carries weapons. The UK has five Reapers and is about to take delivery of five more.

A RAF Reaper is the only British unmanned aircraft that carries arms. Credit: Ministry of Defence

Mr Hammond acknowledged that British owned and operated Reapers have killed civilians - when they fired on a convoy in 2011 - but insisted the drones are part of the UK's future military capability.

The pilots we spoke to insist their task - supporting the military campaign and deciding when and where to fire missiles - is no different from a pilot in Afghanistan flying an Apache helicopter or a Tornado jet.

The 'pilots' support the military campaign in Afghanistan. Credit: ITV News

The planes - based in Kandahar - are controlled by joysticks many thousands of miles away from the frontline and the aircraft can stay in the air for up to 16 hours - nearly always out of sight.

British drones in numbers

A soldier launches a drone during a training exercise in Kenya. Credit: Ministry of Defence
  • Britain's only armed drone, the Reaper, has fired 459 missiles and flown 54,000 hours.

  • The drones operate day and night, with more than one in the air at any one time.

  • The UK has five Reapers currently and has five more due.

  • They can fly for 16 hours at a time at a height of 20,000 feet.