Drone Wars UK has obtained the first detailed figures for use of armed British drones in Iraq and Syria since UK operations began in October 2014. A Ministry of Defence (MoD) response to a Freedom of Information request from the group show that the UK flew just over 100 armed Reaper missions in Iraq in the ten weeks up until 31 December 2014, launching 38 Hellfire missiles. Although Parliament expressly granted authorisation only for the use of military force in Iraq, 5 Reaper flights took place over Syria although no weapons were launched.
Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK said “These figures detail only the first 10 weeks of drone operation in Iraq and Syria, but already we see the tempo of drone strikes as high as it has ever been in Afghanistan. Only once in Afghanistan, at the height of fighting in November 2011, did we see 24 missiles released from UK drones in a single month. In Iraq that has happened in the very first month and we know from anecdotal reports that the tempo of operations has increased even further since the new year.”
Meanwhile the Defence Select Committee has released its first report into the situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to ISIL/ ISIS (although the Committee insists on calling them by the rather obscure title ‘al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham’ (DAESH). The Committee says the recent airstrikes are “strikingly modest” and argues that they have so far only “amounted to carrying out on average less than one air strike a day.” The Committee argues that more can and should be done by the UK “commensurate with our global presence… our status as a P5 member of the Security Council and our traditionally close relationship to the United States.”
Indeed the Committee, far from seeking to ensure that UK military forces do not stray outside of the authority given by Parliament – which careful restricted UK military action to Iraq rather than to Iraq and Syria – argues that this restriction need to be questioned and that “the UK Government should be careful to explain the legal reasoning and strategic logic of this restriction.”
The Committee argues strongly that a lack of overall strategy together will a lack of intelligence about what is happening on the ground is a serious problem. A suggestion from the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon that this could be aided by surveillance flights received short shrift from the Committee:
“When we asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether our understanding of what was happening between the Sunni and Shia factions on the ground was adequate, he acknowledged that there had been intelligence failures earlier in the year (particularly in regards to DAESH leadership and the group’s deployments) but suggested that such gaps could be remedied by surveillance flights as opposed to increased intelligence-gathering on the ground. We remain unconvinced by the remedy proposed by the Secretary of State and would suggest that the problem is more fundamental and extends to the whole nature of the UK Government’s intelligence strategy in Iraq, from requirement to assessment. We would suggest that such intelligence failures can only be remedied through human intelligence sources and political reporting, rather than a reliance on technology which cannot provide any degree of context or cultural understanding.”
As there is little willingness to send troops to Iraq, and especially since the barbaric murder of captured Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the temptation to use drones to carry out more and more airstrikes in order to be seen to be doing something will grow. However without detailed intelligence from the ground, it is simply not possible to know exactly what – or who – is being hit, and reports of civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria are already beginning to surface. Over the coming months, such reports, like the drone strikes, will no doubt increase.