US unveils Predator drones at Latvian airbase
The US Air Force on Tuesday showed off its advanced MQ-1 "Predator" drone at a Latvian airbase, marking the first time the cutting-edge aircraft has been deployed in Europe.
The showcase at the central Lielvarde airbase comes as tensions run high in the Baltic states -- Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia -- with neighbouring Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict.
"It's important to train for interoperability between NATO partners," Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis told AFP at the event.
"It's a good example of smart defence that we can use equipment that we don't currently have," he said, adding Riga is considering buying its own drones without specifying which.
Originally built for Russian bombers, the Lielvarde base has been extensively overhauled to make it the only one in Europe capable of hosting Predator drones on a permanent basis.
But the current deployment is due to last just two weeks and involves familiarising intelligence staff from the Baltic states, Poland and Germany with the system.
The two pilotless drones -- which have a range of 2,000 nautical miles and a top speed of 135 miles per hour -- performed a series of flybys at the showcase also featuring A-10 "Warthog" ground-attack craft.
Though the two drones in Latvia are weapon-free, they are capable of carrying armaments including Hellfire missiles as well as carrying out intelligence and reconnaissance missions.
Tuesday's showcase comes less than a week after US F-22 Raptor fighters visited Estonia for the first time.
The three Baltic states regained their independence in 1991 after 50 years of Soviet occupation and joined NATO in 2004.
© 2015 AFP