RAF

Reaper Force: Inside One Of The Most Secretive Military Communities

Forces News has been given special access to RAF Waddington, from where Reaper crews target fighters from the so-called Islamic State.

The Royal Air Force Reaper drones are on the frontline in the fight against terrorism.

The crew manning the drones have been involved in targeting so-called Islamic State fighters, monitoring their every move over both Iraq and Syria.

The Reaper drones fly from and over the Middle East, but they are controlled by two RAF squadrons thousands of miles away.

One of them, 39 Squadron, is based in Nevada, United States.

The other, 13 Squadron, operates from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

Forces News were given special access and a rare chance to speak to the crews who operate the drones from the RAF base in Lincolnshire.

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Reaper drone operators based in Lincolnshire help defeating IS fighters in the Middle East.

"When you are in the bubble it is as if you are flying over the area that you are actually operating over," said Frankie, Sensor Operator of 13 Squadron.

Every couple of hours, he explained, sensor operators step out of the box for a brief break, but as soon as they step back in, they need to be alert and focused as if they had never left the control station.

"As soon as you go back in, your professionalism returns back on and you do the job."

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Reaper crew refer to the drone operative stations as "the box".

There are three ground control stations for Reaper drones at RAF Waddington. 

The crew refers to the stations as "being in the box", and it is where drone operators and the rest of the crew carry out their drone missions.

What is inside "the box" is highly classified.

There are plenty of differences between the role of a fast jet pilot and that of a Reaper drone operator.

Personnel controlling the drones follow and surveil their subjects for periods of time.

Asked about the challenges encountered when watching subjects for weeks at a time, Sensor Operator Frankie said it is "part of the job" and they are trained to do it.

"We are well coached in the issues that can arise", he added, speaking about the connection sensor operators may form with the subjects when watching on them, and said he was "not at all" affected by issues of this kind.

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13 Squadron and 39 Squadron are in charge of operating Reaper drones across the Middle East while being based remotely.

Tom, Remotely Piloted Air System Pilot with 13 Squadron, explained that "99% of the time" their work is focused on "intelligence surveillance reconnaissance".

"If it is a requirement, at the end of months of watching someone to take a shot, you have done all of those months' work leading up to that for a reason," he said.

Reapers are often seen as unmanned systems, said Wing Commander Mark Jackson, Officer Commanding 13 Squadron, who stressed that is far from the truth.

"We have men and women operating this aircraft in the cockpit and a number of people outside," he explained.

"There is a number of human beings, intelligent people, who are making the decision [of whether] ultimately we are going to use the weapons or not."

"I think we have saved a number of lives in what we have been doing," Wing Commander Jackson added speaking of the effects on the coalition on the ground in the Middle East.

IS fighters in Syria and Iraq were threats to the United Kingdom. Reaper drones, together with their crews, have helped in the fight against IS.

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What is inside the remote Reaper control stations is highly classified.

Members of 13 Squadron have been awarded an operational service medal recognising the part they have played in Operation Shader over Iraq and Syria.

It is the first time the squadron has been recognised for its work in the Middle East.

"It is fantastic news. It is something that we have been battling for a number of years," said Wing Commander Jackson.

"I am absolutely over the moon that our squadron are going to be recognised in this way."

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Wing Commander Jackson receiving his medal and award for the Reaper operations over Syria and Iraq (Picture: RAF Waddington).

There has been "bad press" about drones in the past, according to Frankie, Sensor Operator.

However, he remarked, things seem to have changed.

"Now, everybody can see the difference that we have made in the areas we operate in," he said.

"It is huge and it makes a big difference to our safety back home."

The job is far from easy, it is "high pressure", according to Remotely Piloted Air System Pilot Tom, and for him it is "very important" for his and his colleagues' jobs to be recognised.

The Reaper Force remains one of the most guarded and secretive military communities in the world.

13 Squadron are hoping that talking about how they operate will create greater awareness outside of the military community.