US Air Force applies to fly unmanned aerial drones from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire

The United States Air Force (USAF) is applying to fly unmanned aerial drones from its base in the Cotswolds, according to documents seen by ITV News.

RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire will be a base for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) providing the USAF can persuade the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to give them dedicated airspace in which to fly.

The Americans are keeping tight-lipped about their precise plans, but documents submitted by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) to the CAA sheds light on their intentions.

They say there is “an emerging requirement to operate regularly from RAF Fairford” and, given fears about their safety in a “complex and congested” airspace, “they will not have the required detect and avoid capability” to spot other aircraft - a concern raised by Britain’s air traffic service NATS who say that Fairford “sits in an area of intense aerial activity”.

Chris Cole is the founder of Dronewars. He researches and monitors the use of military drones.

He argues that practically and politically, their use in the UK needs careful consideration.

Drone are 'normalising warfare', Dronewars founder Chris Cole says Credit: ITV News

“The US must not be used allowed to use drones from RAF Fairford. The underlying technology is far from mature, and drones crash an awful lot.

"The Global Hawk drone, for example, we know publicly that's crashed at least four times over the last year. And Reaper drones have crashed at least 80 times over the last decade.

"Drones have been used outside of armed conflicts more and more to undertake so-called targeted killings and those killings are undermining global peace and security.

"Drones are normalising warfare, making warfare much more likely.”

The airspace at RAF Fairford routinely plays host to B-52 bombers - mechanical relics compared to the drones that are coming. Credit: ITV News

Known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), the drones would only take off and land after sunset and before sunrise two or three times a week.

Getting them airborne requires dedicated airspace - using an air corridor passing through lower altitudes used by light aircraft, before heading above commercial aircraft’s height of 30,000 feet towards their cruising altitude of 60,000 feet.

These High Altitude Lone Endurance (HALE) aircraft can stay up there for more than a day.

The United States Air Force told ITV News: “Due to operational security, we cannot discuss future plans for assets and missions operating in the RAF Fairford airspace.

"However, in support of the Agile Combat Employment concept of operations, we are looking at all possible locations we may operate from, through, and over, and we are taking prudent steps to ensure we will have freedom to manoeuvre within those locations should the need ever arise.”

Zach Rosenberg, the Americas air reporter for Janes, says a HALE drone is “a spy plane".

'Britain provides a great geographical base from which to spy on people,' Zach Rosenberg says Credit: ITV News

"It can take photographs, it can hoover up electronic signals, and it can use a radar to see what's going on down on the ground.

"Those UAVs have tended to replace manned aircraft in what's called the ‘dull dirty and dangerous missions’ and reconnaissance generally is a pretty dull mission.

"It can be dangerous from time to time, but mostly it's just flying around in circles for hours and hours off the coast of somewhere that you want to take a look at and drones are very good at that.”

He also says: “Britain provides a great geographical base from which to spy on people.

"It's a great place to base an aircraft because it's a relatively short flight from Britain into the operating areas which are generally off the coast of Russia or Kaliningrad these days.”

Drones have been a part of the military aerial arsenal for years but restrictions on flying them means they have not been deployed from British soil.

Now our skies are set to host these aircraft and despite the fears for Britain and the US, there is a benefit of basing drones here - and in so doing, ensuring that eyes are always on the enemy.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...