With the government yesterday announcing that the UK now has armed drones, perhaps now is the time to writing about my own brush with those who handle the technology.
It was all a series of coincidences really: the kind of thing that can only really happen if one goes regularly to the more troubled parts of the world. On one of my first flights out to Israel, it must have been winter 2008, I was sitting next to a banker on a BMI flight from Heathrow to Tel Aviv. We talked a little but not much. One could not help but notice the illustration of the Predator-like aircraft on the cover. Noticing my interest, the document was hastily put back into a case.
Financing an arms deal, I thought sniffily.
Some months later, while staying in the Dan Panarama Hotel, Haifa, I bumped into a group of young folk staying there. Nice bunch. British. At first I assumed they were there for the Maccabiah Games (A Jewish-only athletics event, similar to the Olympics in concept) which were on at the time. One evening though I met them out on the town. They were being a bit rowdy (nothing much) and one of their number shouted "You lot! Shut up and listen." Instantly the whole group fell quiet.
My eyes goggled and head spun with the realisation. "You guys are military!"
And so they were. British Army, Royal Artillery, on secondment to private industry, training in Israel on drone technology.
In 2009, British drones were for surveillance only. Things have obviously changed now. However, my story of being among the drone folk is not quite over.
It was my last night in Israel, so that must have put it a couple of years afterwards. I was in Mike's Bar, in Tel Aviv, famous for being a regular target for terrorist bombs at one point. Early evening, and apart from the staff there was only one other customer. Lean, tanned, mid-forties. We chatted and exchanged pleasantries. I told him what I did then asked over his business.
He looked at me doubtfully. "I could tell you but I'll have to kill you," he joked. I hope it was at least. I considered him and took a calculated punt.
"You're working on the drone project aren't you."
"Bloody hell! How did you know that? Who are you?"
"I stayed in the same hotel as the Royal Artillery lot. Nice bunch of kids."
He relaxed and then started chatting. We didn't talk much about the drones but he had really interesting things to say about the Iraqi super-gun and it's inventor, Gerald Bull. Dr Bull was subsequently assassinated by Mossad at his front door in 1990.
I did ask a couple of questions. Apparently the business model for the drone's usage in Afghanistan was that the British Army owned no drones. Instead they rented them by the hour from the company. That way they remained completely off-books. Must have been a hell of a rental rate though.
During this recollection, I have purposely avoided giving out any company names and there is a simple reason for that: at no time did any individual I spoke to disclose any such information. If one were to go online and Google the topic, it is not difficult at all to join the dots.
It seems that British military drone technology has moved on since 2009. Now the UK have joined the US and Israel in using these weapons for assassination purposes. Drones seem to be a pretty blunt weapon though. In Afghanistan, the Americans wiped out quite a few wedding parties, maybe just to kill one or two target individuals. Not the way to win either hearts or minds.