On Monday 12 January the UK Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon told the House of Commons that there had been 99 UK airstrikes in Iraq since the beginning of airstrikes on 22 October. On Tuesday 13 January the MoD reported a further strike bringing the total to 100. By our calculations, using reports published by the MoD on their website, approximately one-third have been carried out by the UK’s armed Reaper drones (see table below).
But there must be caution here. It appears that not all UK airstrikes are being recorded on the MoD website. And when they are, it isn’t always possible to know from the details provided by the MoD, whether multiple weapon releases are being counted as one or more ‘strikes’. For example on 12 November a Reaper identified and attacked 3 ISIL positions using its Hellfire missiles. This could possibly be counted as one, two or three strikes (we have counted it as one). As freelance journalist Chris Woods, who monitors the air war in Iraq and Syria, wrote recently “the term ‘airstrike’ can be misleading”. He went on:
“U.S. defense officials concede that what they report as a single incident might involve the targeting of numerous locations. British and Australian statements describe a recent bombing raid on an alleged Islamic State bunker system near Kirkuk that involved 20 aircraft from seven countries and that hit 44 targets. In its own reporting of the incident, Centcom describes just three ‘strikes’”
In addition on two occasions (20 November and 19 December) the original reports published by the MoD on their website have subsequently been edited seemingly to reduce the amount of detail they contain. We have reproduced the original reports in the table below.
Questions over refusal to give details of Reaper deployment
Meanwhile the MoD have again refused to give details of the number of armed drones deployed overseas since the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The MoD told Drone Wars UK on 19 December that the UK’s 10 Reapers had been “relocated to the United Kingdom and the Middle East” but did not provide details of numbers. On 12 January the Defence Minister Mark Francois told Tom Watson MP, Chair of the All Party parliamentary Group on Drones that he was “withholding the exact number of UK Reapers that have relocated to the UK for reasons of safeguarding operational security.”
It is difficult to understand this position. The UK has been happy to detail the number of Tornado aircraft talking part in airstrikes in Iraq and their location (RAF Akrotiri) without it causing operational security issues. Similarly the UK regularly detailed the number and location of Reapers and other UK aircraft taking part in military operations in Afghanistan without suggesting it would cause security problems.
A possible explanation is that keeping current deployment numbers and location secret enables the option of using the drones elsewhere. Last July the MoD Minister Mark Francois told the House of Commons that “the Ministry of Defence may notify Parliament of the deployment of UK Reaper remotely piloted aircraft systems, but there is no intention for parliamentary approval to be sought prior to each deployment or redeployment.”
There have been persistent reports that French forces operating Reaper drones over Mali from Niamey in Niger expect UK Reapers to join them after operations ended in Afghanistan (see here, here and here). US forces in Africa (Africom) have also requested more drones.
In addition although MPs were very clear when voting for military operations against ISIS that it was only approving the use of force in Iraq, within one week of the Reapers being deployed, the Defence Secretary announced that they were also to be used for surveillance missions in Syria. The Telegraph reported that the PM had indicated that the Reapers could launch strikes in Syria “if urgent action was needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis, or protect a British national interest, such as a hostage.’ Asked by The Guardian why Parliament had not been consulted about the use of UK drones in Syria, Cameron’s deputy official spokesman stated that it was because the flights did not amount to military action. Over the past few weeks there has been growing pressure from US military planners on political leaders to deploy more drones and other intelligence assets over Syria to gather more information for operations against ISIS in Syria.
Secrecy has surrounded the use of armed drones and there has been a major push over the past two years by civil society groups, legislators and UN officials for greater transparency. The UK’s refusal to detail how many – and exactly where – its armed Reaper drones have been deployed is a step backwards for transparency and will lower accountability further. This is exactly the opposite of what needs to be happening at a time when many other nations are seeking to deploy such systems.
List of reported UK Reaper strikes in Iraq
Excerpted from UK Ministry of Defence: Update: air strikes in Iraq
|Date report published||Date of strike||Detail relating to use of UK armed Reapers||No, of strikes*||Total no. of UK drone strikes*|
|13 Jan 15||13 Jan 2015||In the early hours of Tuesday 13 January, an RAF Reaper was once again providing air support to the peshmerga in the north of Iraq when an ISIL vehicle was identified being used to reopen a terrorist communications route previously damaged by an attack.The RPAS hit the vehicle with Hellfire missiles and initial analysis suggests that the vehicle was successfully destroyed.||1||31|
|13 Jan 15||8 Jan 2015||On the evening of Thursday 8 January, a Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) worked in close conjunction with other coalition aircraft to provide air support to Iraqi troops in Anbar province, western Iraq.The RAF Reaper provided targeting assistance to the fast jets in strikes against ISIL positions, and conducted a successful attack using its own Hellfire missiles.||1||30|
|06 Jan -15||5 Jan 2015||Reaper and Tornado missions were also flown on the morning of 5 January. Tornados again patrolled the Al Qaim area, where they destroyed an ISIL excavator vehicle, used to construct fortified positions, with a Brimstone, while a Reaper, scouting ahead of Iraqi troops, spotted an armoured vehicle being moved by ISIL on a heavy equipment transporter. A Hellfire missile scored a direct hit on the armoured vehicle, another Hellfire destroyed the transporter itself, and a third missile struck an ISIL position nearby.||2||29|
|06 Jan 2015||4 Jan 2015||On 4 January, an RAF Reaper, working in support of Iraqi army units, identified an ISIL vehicle and engaged it with a Hellfire missile. Shortly afterwards, the Reaper discovered an ISIL position close by, and attacked this with another Hellfire.||2||27|
|29 Dec 2014||28 Dec 2014||On 28 December, an RAF Reaper again provided support to the Kurdish peshmerga in the north of the country. Having conducted overwatch for a coalition air strike on 3 ISIL buildings known to have been fortified as heavy machine-gun positions, the Reaper then mounted 2 strikes of its own using Hellfire missiles against enemy fighting positions.||2||25|
|29 Dec 2014||24 Dec 2014||Wednesday [24 Dec] saw both Tornados and Reaper aircraft providing support to the Kurdish peshmerga, as they consolidated their recent victories over ISIL. A Tornado patrol identified an ISIL armed vehicle at a large former Iraqi military compound, and attacked it with a Brimstone missile. Meanwhile, a Reaper provided overwatch to a US air strike that destroyed a truck which had been converted into a large suicide bomb vehicle, then fired a Hellfire missile at a pick-up truck being used by ISIL to build a road-block of burning tyres.||1||23|
|19 Dec 2014||19 Dec 2014||NB. Original report of 19 Dec has now been edited on MoD web site. This is original wording relating to Reaper strikes.In northern Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga, trained and equipped by a British Army training team, have enjoyed notable success in a major offensive across a wide swathe of territory. They are reported to have broken ISIL’s long-running siege of Yazidi minorities on Mount Sinjar.The peshmerga offensive has been assisted by considerable coalition air support, including from the RAF. A Reaper played its part last night by providing surveillance for an advancing Kurdish unit. The Reaper conducted three strikes this morning with Hellfire missiles on ISIL fighting positions.||3||22|
|19 Dec 2014||18 Dec 2014||On Thursday [Dec 18] remotely piloted Reapers flew armed reconnaissance missions over Iraq in support of both the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga.One Reaper patrol was tasked to locate a group of ISIL terrorists who had fired on advancing Iraqi troops. The Reaper spotted the terrorists planting a number of improvised explosive devices and successfully attacked with a Hellfire missile.||1||19|
|12 Dec 2014||? 12 Dec 2014||A RAF Reaper conducted armed reconnaissance in northern Iraq, where ISIL are facing increasing pressure from the Kurdish peshmerga. The Reaper’s mission focused on engineering equipment being used by the terrorists to construct defensive positions to hold up peshmerga advances. The remotely piloted aircraft was able to locate 2 of these engineer vehicles, and attacked them with Hellfire missiles.Further south, another Reaper identified an ISIL armed pick-up truck and engaged it with a Hellfire missile.||3||18|
|9 Dec2014||8 Dec 2014||Elsewhere in Iraq, a RAF Reaper providing surveillance for Iraqi ground forces observed a hostile armoured personnel carrier and successfully attacked it with a Hellfire missile.||1||15|
|3 Dec 2014||2 Dec 2014||Last night (2 Dec)… A Reaper remotely piloted aircraft also saw action over Iraq, attacking an ISIL vehicle with a Hellfire missile.||1||14|
|1 Dec 2014||30 Nov 2014||In the early hours of Sunday morning [30 Nov], a further pair of Tornado GR4s, whilst on an armed reconnaissance patrol, came to the support of Iraqi forces engaged in a major firefight with ISIL near Tikrit. Two terrorist positions were identified, and despite the close proximity of the Iraqi troops, the precision of the Brimstone missile system allowed both targets to be engaged without risk to friendly forces.Meanwhile, an RAF Reaper remotely piloted aircraft on a separate patrol was able to attack 3 ISIL positions with Hellfire missiles.Later on Sunday, another Reaper conducted a reconnaissance patrol in northern Iraq, looking to identify ISIL groups taking up new positions as they retreated from an advance by Kurdish peshmerga.Two ISIL positions and a vehicle were located by the Reaper’s crew, allowing coalition fast jets to conduct strikes on each in turn. The Reaper then identified a further ISIL position and engaged it with 1 of its own Hellfire missiles.||2||13|
|27 Nov 2014||27 Nov 2014||Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado GR4s, working in close conjunction with RAF Reaper aircraft, flew over northern Iraq in support of Kurdish peshmerga who have made several advances against ISIL in recent days.The initial target for the Tornados was an ISIL fighting position, which was struck with Paveway IV guided bombs. The GR4s then joined the Reaper in a combined attack on a group of 9 ISIL vehicles; a mixture of armoured personnel carriers and armed pick-up trucks.The group was struck with a combination of Brimstone and Hellfire missiles, and Paveway IV bombs.||1||11|
|27 Nov 2014||27 Nov 2014||During the afternoon of 26 November, another RAF Reaper operating elsewhere in the country was able to assist Iraqi soldiers who were under fire from an ISIL position on top of a building; the Reaper’s crew fired a single Hellfire missile||1||10|
|20 Nov 2014||? 20 Nov 2014||NB. Original report of 20 Nov has now been edited on MoDweb site. This is original wording relating to Reaper strikes.RAF Reaper remotely piloted aircraft were also in action over Iraq, carrying out armed reconnaissance missions. Three ISIL vehicles, in different locations, were positively identified by the crews operating the Reapers and were engaged with Hellfire missiles. Initial analysis indicates that these attacks were successful.||3||9|
|19 Nov 2014||18 Nov 2014||An RAF Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) was yesterday [18 Nov] tasked to investigate ISIL activity elsewhere in Iraq.The Reaper’s operators were able to locate a bulldozer which coalition forces confirmed was being used to prepare fighting positions to hold up Iraqi advances.A Hellfire missile was used to attack the bulldozer, which initial reports indicate was destroyed.||1||6|
|17 Nov 2014||13 Nov 2014||On Thursday evening [13 Nov], Kurdish peshmerga reported coming under fire from a dug-in machine-gun position. An RAF Reaper remotely piloted air system succeeded in locating the ISIL position, and attacked it with a Hellfire missile. The crew operating the Reaper then identified further ISIL positions, allowing another coalition aircraft to conduct an attack.Before the end of its patrol, the Reaper crew used another Hellfire to engage an ISIL checkpoint set up to control a road.Elsewhere in Iraq, another Reaper, investigating reported ISIL activity in response to advancing Iraqi forces, identified terrorists boarding a truck. Despite the vehicle moving off at high speed, the Reaper crew were able to hit it with a Hellfire.||3||5|
|13 Nov 2014||12 Nov 2014||Last night a RAF Reaper RPAS was involved in a coalition air strike in the Kirkuk region. The Reaper had been tasked to conduct reconnaissance in an area where Iraqi forces had encountered ISIL fighters. The operators were able to use the Reaper’s advanced systems to identify a number of ISIL positions, enabling another coalition aircraft to attack a command post, bunker, observation post and 2 armed pick-up trucks. They then identified a further 3 positions, and, having carefully checked the area, conducted attacks using the Reaper’s own Hellfire missiles. Initial analysis indicates that the attacks were successful.||1||2|
|10 Nov 2014||10 Nov 2014(Note the first strike has also been reported to have taken place on 9 November)||10 November – saw the first air strike by a RAF Reaper RPAS. A series of coalition missions were conducted near Bayji, north of Baghdad, where ISIL terrorists were laying improvised explosive devices. The Reaper, using procedures identical to those of manned aircraft, successfully attacked the terrorists using a Hellfire missile.||1||1|
*It is not always clear if multiple weapon launches are counted as one or more strikes.