New figures on UK drone use in Iraq and Syria

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released new data on UK drone operations in Iraq and Syria to Drone Wars in response to a Freedom of Information request. The data covers Reaper operations in Iraq and Syria in the third quarter of the year (June – Sept 2015) as well as new data on British Tornado missions and strikes since the beginning of operations against ISIS.

The table below give details of UK drone operations in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of the year (data for whole operation is here). Note figures here use the ‘UK methodology’ for calculating number of strikes (see more below).

UK Reaper operations in Iraq and Syria (Jan – Sep 2015)
Month UK Reaper Missions solely in Iraq UK Reaper Missions entering Syria Total  UK Reaper   missions % of UK Reaper missions in Syria UK Reaper Missions releasing weapons in Iraq No. of strikes from UK Reapers in Iraq* Weapons from UK Reapers in Iraq
Jan 2015 63 8 71 11% 12 25 33
Feb 2015 59 8 67 12% 7 12 13
Mar 2015 62 14 76 18% 13 17 18
Apr 2015 59 20 79 25% 11 17 18
May 2015 59 25 84 30% 16 26 28
Jun 2015 48 32 80 40% 10   9 11
Jul 2015 50 31 81 25% 10 16 17
Aug 2015 58 31 89 28% 15 18 32
Sep 2015 60 24 84 20% 19 37 37
Total 518 193 711 27% 113 117 207

*Note using ‘UK Methodology’ for strike figures.

Despite the lack of parliamentary or UN authorisation, UK drones continue to undertake armed missions within Syria (see this FoI response for confirmation that British drones operating in Syria are armed).  Along with five missions inside Syria at the end of 2014, there have been almost 200 such flights into Syria up until end of September.

The MoD letter confirms that there has only been one British drone strike in Syria – which targeted and killed Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in August – but does not give any further details.

Importantly the response states very clearly that the strike was not undertaken as part of Operation Shader, the UK mission to support the Global Coalition’s efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. The UK has given two separate legal explanations for the strike. Initially, David Cameron told MPs that the targeted killing of Khan was undertaken in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter but later British diplomats told the UN that the strike was also undertaken in the “collective self-defence of Iraq.” However the MoD letter states unequivocally that the strike was “not part of Operation Shader” indicating apparently that British diplomats are out of step with the MoD on this.

With this new data, for the first time we can directly compare British use of unmanned drones in Iraq with use of the manned Tornado aircraft.  Between January and September 2015, the Reapers flew almost 100 more missions in Iraq than the Tornado.  In addition there was also almost 200 separate Reaper missions within Syria as already mentioned.

UK Tornado operations in Iraq (Jan – Sep 2015)
Month UK Tornado missions  in Iraq UK Tornado Missions launching weapons in Iraq No. of weapons launched  from UK Tornados in Iraq No of Tornado  air strikes

 (UK method)

% of Iraq Tornado missions launching weapons
Jan 15 46 10 31 21 22%
Feb 15 42 10 18 12 24%
Mar 15 53 12 35 25 22%
Apr 15 49 14 35 23 29%
May 15 49 13 25 23 22%
Jun 15 46 10 32 22 22%
Jul 15 49 12 24 20 24%
Aug 15 50 10 26 26 20%
Sep 15 43 12 23 20 28%
Totals 427 103 249 192 24%


In Iraq in the first nine months of the year, slightly more Reaper missions launched weapons (113 compared to 103 Tornado missions). However these figures also show that more airstrikes were carried out from Tornados than Reaper missions (117 airstrikes from Reapers compared to 192 air strikes from Tornados). It needs to be appreciated that each Tornado ‘mission’ comprises of two Tornados on patrol, while a Reaper missions consists of one aircraft.  Taking this into account per platform Reaper drones can be said to be launching more strikes than the manned strike aircraft.

Comparing Reaper drone operations vs Tornado operations in Iraq (Jan-Sep 2015)

 Aircraft No. of missions Missions releasing weapons % of missions releasing weapons No. of weapons released No of strikes     (UK method)
Reapers 518 113 22% 207 117
Tornados 427 103 24% 249 192


When is a strike a strike?

The data released by the MoD show there is a dramatic difference between the strike figures given by the MoD using the UK methodology to calculate number of air strikes than the US (or Coalition) methodology.   For example using the UK method, the MoD says there were 37 British Reaper drone strikes and 20 Tornado strikes in Iraq in September 2015.   However the same FoI response also gives the number of strikes using the US methodology (which Defence Secretary Michal Fallon has now mandated the UK to follow when calculating strikes) as 21 Reaper strikes and 13 Tornado strikes.  This means a difference (cut) of 54% and 35% respectfully over the UK methodology.  While the same number of bombs have been dropped of course, the public reporting has been very much altered.

We asked the MoD to explain the differences in how strikes are calculated and they provided the following explanation:

“The Coalition defines a strike as a target and time-based count, not aircraft or weapon-based. Regardless of the number of aircraft or weapons, a strike is an attack against a target within a timeframe consistent with a single engagement. By example, two Tornado aircraft drop two bombs each on the same target. This counts as one strike using the Coalition definition. While the two methods normally give similar results for pre-planned targets they often give different results for dynamic targets.

The full (and much more detailed) explanation is available here.

Given that the majority of air strikes undertaken in Iraq and Syria are not pre-planned but dynamically targeted (i.e. launched while on the fly) the figures are liable to be increasingly different.  The MoD has told Drone Wars UK “we are ceasing to produce strike data using the UK method and this information will no longer be held in future.”

Amidst all the statistical analysis it’s important to remember that bombs are being dropped and people killed.  Airwars which tracks coalitions air strikes in Iraq and Syria as well as reports of civilian casualties reports that between 639 and 916 civilian non-combatants have been killed in 106 incidents where there is fair reporting publicly available of an event, and where Coalition strikes were confirmed in the near vicinity on that date.  The MoD continues to insist that no UK air strikes have caused any civilian casualties.




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