UK ops in Iraq and Syria: Reaper drones likely to play an increasing part says senior RAF officer

The latest response to our Freedom of Information requests on British air and drone operations in Iraq and Syria show a marked decline in UK air and drone strikes in Syria since December 2018. (See our stats page for full update) Altogether, British drones and manned aircraft fired 189 missiles and bombs in the final three months of 2018 compared with 69 in the first three months of 2019 – a drop of 63%.


Weapons fired by UK Aircraft, Oct 18 – Mar 19
Reaper Tornado Typhoon Total
Oct-Dec 2018 32 78 79 189
Jan – Mar 2019 6 30 33 69

The RAF’s eight Tornado aircraft that were based in Cyprus and being used for operations in Iraq and Syria were withdrawn at the end of January and have now been retired along with the rest of the UK’s Tornado fleet. That leave six BritishTyphoons operating from Cyprus and up to nine British Reaper drones operating from Kuwait. Jane’s magazine gave a helpful update:

RAF Deputy Commander Operations, Air Marshall Stu Atha, told Jane’s that there were no current plans to expand the six-aircraft Typhoon element on Operation ‘Shader’. He said that although No 903 Expeditionary Air Wing will no longer sustain the same tempo of operations as it did with 14 fast jets, the campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) is moving into a different phase.
“The physical caliphate has been rolled back and the final vestiges are very small,” he said, predicting that the campaign would become more of a close air support operation, in which the Reaper remotely piloted aircraft system is likely to play an increasing part.

We are perhaps seeing the beginnings of this ‘increasing part’ with the tripling of Reaper missions in Iraq in the first three months of 2019 over the previous quarter. Although the numbers aren’t huge (up from 11 missions to 36) it is worth noting.


Meanwhile, before Gavin Williamson was sacked as Defence Secretary, he announced changes to the way the UK would report on its air attacks. In a written Statement on 8 April 2019 the Secretary of State said:

In 2015, the then-Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, committed to providing Parliament with UK airstrike numbers from the Coalition’s datasets to allow us to compare our contribution with other Coalition partners. This was a move away from using a UK dataset and methodology to calculate our airstrike contribution to the Counter-Daesh fight. Following the House of Commons Defence Committee’s request to provide a biannual breakdown of our air contribution to the Counter-Daesh campaign in Iraq and Syria, I have reviewed the method with which our contribution to the Coalition’s air campaign are calculated and from this decided to discontinue reporting on airstrikes, which can be interpreted differently each time they are viewed, to focus on reporting the number of actual weapon release events.

Under doctrine, an airstrike is one or more weapon releases against the same target by one or more aircraft. With this definition, two aircraft dropping weapons on the same target could be seen by one person as one airstrike, whilst being two airstrikes to another; we do not consider this a reliable method to report our contribution. Whereas, a weapon release event is the employment of a single weapon system, by a single airframe, at one time, against a single target. As such, a weapon release event will always be calculated and reported in the same way and cannot be misinterpreted.

Drone Wars, Airwars and others have regularly argued that the term ‘air strike’ is misleading and that the number of weapons fired is a better metric to understand what is happening on the ground and to aid analysis and investigation of military operations. While the change to ‘Weapon Release Event’ (WRE) is a step forward, this may not provide absolute clarity. As MoD minister Mark Lancaster made clear to Annelise Dodds MP in response to her written question, a ‘weapons release event’ may be the firing by one aircraft of one or multiple weapons at a target.

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