By Jason Lewis
A Top-secret US unmanned drone used to locate Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in Pakistan and Afghanistan could soon be patrolling over British cities to search for hidden terror cells.
The controversial move would allow MI5 and GCHQ, the Government’s eavesdropping centre, to step up surveillance operations over the UK.
America is keen to supply them for British patrols after a string of terror plots threatening the US and its citizens.
Britain would not need to use the drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan because the US already provides full air coverage in the region. Instead, it is believed they will be used mainly for domestic surveillance.
The drones are also being deployed by the US Navy in the Caribbean and off the Florida coast to combat drug smuggling. In Britain, MI5 and GCHQ already use three planes based at RAF Northolt in North-West London to spy on citizens.
The three Britten-Norman Islander aircraft are all fitted with sophisticated surveillance equipment. They have been used to track down terror cells and to locate former Afghan veterans who may have returned to Britain to plot terror attacks.
The aircraft are able to identify suspects using ‘voice-prints’ of insurgents with British accents that were picked up by spy planes monitoring Taliban radio signals in Afghanistan.
One stumbling block is that permission from the Civil Aviation Authority would be needed to fly the drones in already congested UK airspace. Although the CAA gave the MoD permission to fly another drone over parts of Wales earlier this month, it is understood to be against regular flights because of safety fears.
However, the Global Hawk recently became the first drone to be certified by the American Federal Aviation Authority for use in civilian air corridors with no advance notice.
The drone can stay airborne for 30 hours without refuelling. Last night, MoD sources said the Global Hawk was being looked at for possible military use but any decision to buy the drone would depend on funding.