UK operations in Iraq/Syria:  New reporting methods means less transparency & understanding

Days before the parliamentary recess Defence Secretary Michael Fallon slipped out a written statement on UK military operations against ISIS.  Overshadowed by the uproar around the revelations from Reprieve that UK pilots embedded in US forces were already undertaking air strikes in Syria in direct contravention of parliamentary authority, the statement reveals two important changes to UK drone operations.  Firstly that the UK is changing the way it calculates and records air strikes in Iraq to fall in line with the US methodology (or as Fallon chose to  put it “the Coalition method”).  Secondly through what Michael Fallon calls “collaborative force management and sharing arrangements”, the UK and the US will once again apparently be sharing drones.

When is an air strike an air strike?

In the Statement Fallon says:

 “Since the outset of the air campaign, we have provided to Parliament a range of information on UK air activity, including on the number of strikes carried out by our aircraft based on UK methodology. As the campaign has progressed, we have had better visibility and understanding of the method used by the Coalition to calculate total strike numbers which differs from the method used by the UK. I have concluded that it would be preferable in future to use Coalition produced numbers for UK strikes.”

When is an air strike and air strike?
When is an air strike and air strike?

To most people it may seem that what constitutes an air strike is obvious: a weapon fired from an aircraft hitting an aim point on the ground equals one air strike.  However nothing is so simple when it comes to the military.

Multiple weapons fired from one aircraft at the same time aimed at different targets on the ground can often be counted by the military as only one strike.  Sometimes even multiple aircraft firing multiple weapons at multiple aim points in roughly the same geographical area (for example different part of a building complex, vehicles outside, and a group of individuals gathered across the road) can also be described by the military as a one or two strikes.

As Chris Woods of Airwars has pointed out, in November last year 20 aircraft from seven different nations hitting 44 different targets ended up (under ‘Coalition Method’) as being described as just 3 strikes. In addition when weapons do not hit their aim point  – for example if two missiles are fired at one target and one hits the aim point but the other misses and hits a separate building 30 metres away – that will still be described as one strike. Fallon’s statement goes on:

“For transparency, the table below shows the number of strikes carried out to date by both methods. This will result in an apparent reduction in the total number of UK strikes but does not represent a material change in the substantial contribution that the UK has, and continues to make to the counter-ISIL Global Coalition air campaign.”


Monthly Strikes – UK Method Cumulative Total -UK Method Monthly Strikes – Coalition Method Cumulative Total – Coalition Method
September – 2014 2 2 2 2
October – 2014 15 17 8 10
November -2014 40 57 26 36
December -2014 33 90 26 62
January -2015 46 136 28 90
February -2015 24 160 19 109
March -2015 42 202 29 138
April – 2015 34 236 26 164
May -2015 37 273 34 198
June -2015 30 308* 28 226

*Note – this figure given by MoD is an apparent miscalculation and should be 303.

By using the ‘coalition method’ the MoD has at a stroke ‘reduced’ the number of UK airstrikes in Iraq by 25%.  The reality is of course that the MoD is not reducing the number of actual strikes but is reducing our understanding of what is happening on the ground, lowering accountability and reducing transparency. In their most recent FoI response on UK drone strikes in Iraq the MoD have used the ‘coalition method’ rather than the UK method previously used.  We asked for clarification to explain the difference between the UK and the Coalition calculations, but the MoD have insisted that such a clarification be treated as a further and separate FoI (and consequently will take some time to answer).

Back to drone borrowing?

Michael Fallon’s statement also indicates that the UK and US will once again be sharing drones to undertake missions.  Fallon said:

 “We have also taken steps to increase the efficiency of the Coalition ISR effort through collaborative force management and sharing arrangements with the US for Reaper and Airseeker. As US systems, these two types are particularly suitable for such cooperation.”

In Afghanistan the UK ‘borrowed’ US drones for some operations including launching strikes.  The UK have stated that the US did not borrow UK drones for missions in Afghanistan but it seems from the Defence Secretary’s statement that this may now be a possibility.  As we have written previously, such borrowing arrangements will mean even less transparency and makes it even harder for civilian victims of air strikes to hold perpetrators to account.

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