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Latest update : 2014-05-12

Drones: A military revolution

Drones: unmanned, discreet and economical planes, are the secret weapons of approximately 30 armies around the world. But these small remote-controlled aircraft are also criticized for the significant collateral damage they can cause on the ground. Our reporters in the United States bring you an exclusive report filmed on a US Army base in New Mexico.

When it comes to reporting on the use of drones by the United States, one can only scratch the surface, because of the secretive nature of the American drone programme. Only a relatively small part of it is public, and its deadliest component remains a secret.

According to the US military, drones don’t even exist. The term “drones”, that is. The planes are officially called "RPAs" by all US officials, except, notably, US President Barack Obama. RPA stands for remotely piloted aircraft. By using this term, the military wants to underscore that these machines are actually piloted by humans, and aren’t just robots.

That is the main reason the Pentagon allowed us to visit Holloman Air Force Base in deepest New Mexico. The Air Force likes to show off its pilots and its many pilots-in-waiting. They are disciplined, they look like normal pilots, and in many cases they are former fighter jet pilots. But these frequent fliers rarely touch their flying machines, and only take the helm until they are already in the air. It’s a fascinating detail: a separate set of pilots, not shown to us, is responsible for take offs and landings.

The US Air Force’s drone programme is not as secretive as the CIA's, but we can't publish the names of the pilots we interviewed. It’s a prerequisite for the interview, because of the fear of reprisals or revenge attacks. The United States and its drones, after all, remain at war, and they still kill both terrorists and civilians. For security purposes we interview "Matt". That’s all we learn of his identity.

There is one short slip of the tongue, when Matt accidentally reveals his full name during a sound check. His nervous reaction is revealing: he repeatedly asks whether the footage was deleted. It was.

According to the New America Foundation, US drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen have killed around 4,500 men and women since the outset of the war on terror. The same organization says that up to 10 percent of those victims are civilians.

There are no official figures. That's because the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone programme is the body staging attacks in these countries. The CIA has neither a legal  obligation to acknowledge its actions, nor to be transparent. Therefore it has wider scope in countries that the United States is not at war with, the likes of Yemen and Pakistan.

Barack Obama wants to slowly but surely move the US drone programme from the auspices of CIA to those of the US military. But the CIA doesn’t want to budge for now. It believes it is precisely the secretive nature of the agency’s drone attacks that makes them such a useful tool.

It’s a tool increasingly used by other countries as well. We are the first journalists to meet the French drone pilots in training at Holloman Air Force Base. They will be piloting American-made Reaper drones in Niger. They tell us that they got the full training course, except the part that teaches pilots how to use the weapons that hang from the drones’ wings. The French pilots say that during those lessons, the classroom door remained firmly shut. The French Air Force has bought two Reaper drones so far, and could very well be coming back for more in the near future.

They are unarmed drones, used for surveillance purposes only. But the reality is that a Reaper or Predator drone can very easily be equipped with deadly Hellfire missiles.

More and more men and women are passing through the US Air Force’s training programme to become drone pilots. British and Italian pilots have also been spotted at Holloman Air Force Base, alongside swarms of American pilots. This year, the US Air Force will this be training more drone pilots than fighter jet pilots. It seems to be the new reality of warfare.

By Stanislas DE SAINT HIPPOLYTE , Philip CROWTHER

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