Following a Freedom of Information request from Drone Wars UK the Ministry of Defence has revealed for the first time that the UK’s Reaper drone fleet has relocated partly to the Middle East and partly to the UK after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The MoD stated in its FoI response to Chris Cole, Director of the campaign group:
“I can confirm Reaper, the RAF’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, has relocated to the United Kingdom and the Middle East. Under Section 16 of the Act (Advice and Assistance), you may find it helpful to note that the Reaper aircraft being returned to the UK will be kept in storage.”
However the MoD have not revealed how many of the UK’s fleet of 10 armed Reapers are in the Middle East or how many are in storage in the UK. Defence Minister Mark Francois told Tom Watson MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones on 18 November that the MoD will not be detailing the number of UK drone on operation over Iraq or Syria.
The MoD said on 16 October that two Reapers were being deployed from Afghanistan to operations over Iraq and two weeks later the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that further Reapers were to be deployed to Iraq but did not give details. Chris Cole said
“We welcome the news that the UK has placed at least some of its Reapers drones in storage at the end of Operation Herrick. However the MoD’s refusal to detail the number of UK armed drones actually involved in military operations over Iraq and Syria is actually a step backwards in terms of transparency as previously the MoD gave details of the number of UK Reapers on operations in Afghanistan.
We know that one Reaper was damaged and has been undergoing repairs for a long time and it may simply be that this one damaged Reaper has been put in storage while the rest of the fleet is undertaking operations in the Middle East. Alternatively there may only be 3 or 4 UK drones deployed to Iraq and Syria with the rest put in storage. Without details it is impossible to have proper public and parliamentary scrutiny nor accountability for UK armed drone operations.”
MPs voted on 26 September to deploy UK forces for military operations against ISIS but were very clear that they had only given approval for the use of force in Iraq. Within one week of the Reapers being deployed however, the Defence Secretary announced that they were also to be used for missions in Syria. Although so far these are surveillance missions only, as the Telegraph reported ‘David Cameron has indicated that an exception would be made if urgent action was needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis, or protect a British national interest, such as a hostage.’ Asked why parliament had not been consulted about the use of UK drones in Syria,The Prime Minister’s spokesperson told the Guardian that it was because the flights did not amount to military action.
The MoD have reported 24 UK drone strikes in Iraq as part of Operation Shader up until 19 December. Freelance reporter Chris Woods who maintains a dataset of coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria reports a total of 56 British airstrikes between 30 September and 21 December.