Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Monday, 4 August 2008 00:01 UK

Spy plane intelligence 'lacking'

The Reaper
The UK military has bought three Reapers from the US

The effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles used by UK military in Iraq and Afghanistan is being undermined by skills shortages, MPs have warned.

The said the reconnaissance drones have "battle-winning" properties, but how the intelligence they gather is processed needs to be improved.

The Ministry of Defence had been "slow" to appreciate their potential, the Commons Defence Committee report added.

The government said it "recognised" the contribution UAVs made.

UK forces currently use three types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - the American-made Reaper, the Hermes 450 and the Desert Hawk.

The Reaper - of which the UK owns two after a third crashed in Afghanistan - is operated remotely via a satellite link by an operator based in Nevada in the US.

It is used to detect snipers or insurgents and roadside bombs, which have become one of the biggest threats to forces on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is also one of the UK's main tools in hunting down Taleban or al-Qaeda operatives.

The less powerful Hermes 450 and Desert Hawk are both operated in the field.

According to the report, the Army had a 48% shortfall in UAV operators at the start of 2008, while the RAF was 18% shy of the number needed to assess the intelligence value of images.

Reaper infographic (BBC)

The committee said that the Ministry of Defence had been "slow" to appreciate their potential and had had to buy in UAVs as a "stop-gap filler" while it awaited the delivery of its new Watchkeeper system in 2010.

"The MoD must address the manning deficits in these areas in order to gain the maximum value from its current and future UAV systems," the committee said.

It also warned that the MoD needed to improve the way the material gathered by the UAVs was processed and disseminated to commanders on the ground, with one major computer programme already experiencing delays.

"The MoD was perhaps slow to appreciate the potential of UAVs, but now recognises the important contribution that they can make," said committee chairman James Arbuthnot.

"The MoD must push forward with its planned improvements so that out Armed Forces can continue to achieve information superiority over the enemy."

Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth said UAVs had proved to be an "invaluable asset" for the military.

"They have a crucial role to play in future operations and we will continue to invest in them," he said.

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