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Bombardier Martyn Gates, from Southampton, says use of unmanned aircraft vital in Afghanistan
2:16pm Wednesday 18th December 2013 in News
IT is better to lose a thousand unmanned aircraft than the life of one man on the ground, a Southampton soldier has said today.
Bombardier Martyn Gates, who is part of a team that flies one of the UK's unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan, said its use is vital in gathering information without risking soldiers' lives.
The comments come after the Ministry of Defence released images of Defence Secretary Philip Hammond visiting RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, where the RAF's Reaper aircraft in Afghanistan are piloted, as part of efforts to dispel myths about ''drones''.
British troops fly a variety of remote-controlled aircraft in Afghanistan, most unarmed, which are used to gather intelligence to be passed on to troops on the ground.
But while Reapers are flown by pilots in RAF Waddington, many smaller craft are flown from highly-trained pilots based in Helmand Province.
The Theatre Integrated Unmanned Aircraft Systems Battery Group, based in Camp Bastion, is home to several Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), from small Desert Hawk aircraft, to Tarantula-Hawks - resembling airborne dustbins, and capable of hovering above the object they are looking at - and larger Hermes 450 aircraft.
None are armed, but have varying ranges and capabilities and are used to video the ground below, sending images back to analysts at Camp Bastion to provide intelligence and information.
Those who fly them and collect information from their live feeds today said they are invaluable to troops on the ground.
Bombardier Gates, from 32 Regiment Royal Artillery, said: ''I would rather lose one of these than lose a life, I would rather lose a thousand of these than lose lives.''
And the 26-year-old, from Southampton, said the effectiveness of the Desert Hawk made insurgents ''hate'' those that fly it.
''They don't see this as a threat, they see us as a threat. They hate us but we're here to do a job and we do that job very well.''
Major Charlie Harmer, officer commanding the battery, said if unmanned aircraft can gather information by putting less people at risk, then they were vital.
''There's a misconception that they are not flown by people - the crews fly them, they are trained pilots, whatever the size these blokes go through an awful lot of training,'' the 35-year-old, from Penzance, said.
And as a commander on the ground himself in Afghanistan in 2007, he said he knew firsthand how reassuring they can be.
''I remember being on patrol at night, when you couldn't see much, you had your night vision goggles on but it was still difficult to see.
''But you knew one of these was up there, watching. It's very reassuring when you're on the ground.''
Staff Sergeant Gerwyn Taylor, 35, from Pontypridd, south Wales, who analyses the information that comes back from the aircraft, said: ''It can be invaluable. There's areas where we don't have freedom of movement, but with this we have a 150km range.
''You're not going to send guys on the ground to go and look at something 150km away, but we can send this.''
He said on one occasion, UAS were used to check the reason behind a build-up of traffic on a certain bridge, which led to analysts spotting that there was a contraflow.
''You don't have to endanger boots on the ground to say there's a contraflow and that's why there's a build-up of traffic.''
During his visit to RAF Waddington, Mr Hammond saw the full range of unmanned aerial equipment, including the Hermes 450 and the Tarantula Hawk, and spoke to infantry soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan who spoke of the benefits of the 'eyes in the sky'.
He said: ''Vital to our efforts to protect our forces and the people of Afghanistan, this battle-winning technology allows us to: understand the situation on the ground more clearly; develop better intelligence; and precisely strike, within our rules of engagement, those who threaten or hurt the people we are protecting.
''Much of the criticism of Unmanned Aerial Systems is based on misunderstanding. This event provides a great opportunity to better inform people about these life-saving assets and their variety of purpose.''
The MoD said that in over 54,000 hours of operations the UK's Reaper, the only armed system used by British Armed Forces, had fired just 459 weapons - less than one weapon in every 120 hours of flying.
There has also been just one known operation that led to the deaths of civilians in March 2011 when an attack on two pick-up trucks destroyed a large quantity of insurgent explosives and caused the death of two insurgents, but also killed four Afghan civilians.
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