UK drones more likely to target individuals than infrastructure data analysis reveals

Drone video showing ISIS fighter with children in Iraq.*

Examination of UK air strike data from the past two years shows that British unmanned drones have been used far more often to attack individuals on the ground in Iraq and Syria than the UK’s other strike aircraft, the Tornado or the Typhoon.

Analysis of reports published by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over the two years up until September 2019 show Reaper drones launched two-thirds (67%) of the 110 strikes at ISIS fighters in the open while other aircraft were used far more often to launch attacks on buildings, fighting positions, strong-points and other infrastructure. Half of all UK Reaper attacks (51%) were targeted at individuals on the ground compared to only 10% of Tornado and Typhoon strikes. Altogether, Reapers launched 29% of the UK’s strikes in this two-year period.

A total of 499 UK air attacks on specific targets have been identified from the reports published by the MoD which we have broken down in to 20 categories including ‘buildings’; ‘positions’, ‘armed truck’; ‘fighters; ‘heavy weapons’ etc. For the vast majority of individual reports, the specific aircraft undertaking the attack was given. On 33 occasions the attack was carried out by a joint Tornado/Typhoon patrol and so these are detailed separately. According to FoI data, two Reaper attacks occurred in July 2019 and two Typhoon attacks in August 2019, however these were not detailed in RAF updates so the targets are unknown. Table 1 details which categories were attacked by which type of UK aircraft between Oct 2017- Sept 2019.

Drones have likely been used far more often to target individuals on the ground compared to other aircraft due to the nature of the aircraft itself and the way they are used. Reaper drones are much slower than fast jets such as Tornado and Typhoon and because of this they tend to be sent to one area and operate in that specific location. By contrast fast jets tend to move around much more during their armed sorties ranging over hundreds of miles. At the same time, Reapers stay in the air far longer than other aircraft, meaning that they loiter in this one area, watching particular compounds or individuals and also looking for ‘targets of opportunity’. Tornado and Typhoons strikes, for the most part, appear to have been called in to strike particular buildings or positions by SDF or others on the ground. Table 2 shows some typical examples of the varying reports.

Note: Details from Update: air strikes against Daesh. All these reports are from 2018

It should be noted that the data here covers a specific two-year time period, which includes the end of ISIS’ so-called caliphate and care needs to be taken in drawing conclusions about how drones have been – or will be – used in other countries or war zones at other times. Nevertheless, this data is an important insight into the way armed drones are being used on a day-to-day basis.  In addition, given that armed drones are being used far more to target individuals on the ground that other aircraft, this could in part explain why drone crew are suffering mental health problems compared to other air crew.

UK strikes decrease

The number of UK strikes has declined dramatically since the end of January 2019, with only 30 targets being reported struck since then, and only 5 of those by British Reaper drones (see Table 3). The UK retired its Tornado aircraft at the end of January 2019. A small number of the UK’s new F-35 aircraft were deployed on operational missions over Iraq and Syria for a short time, but none of these launched attacks.

The UK MoD continues to insist that its Reaper drones are ‘primarily used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance’. Given how long the Reapers are in the air this may be technically true, but the statement hides the fact that the Reapers are carrying out just as many attacks as the UK’s dedicated strike aircraft focused, as this data shows, on strikes against individuals on the ground.

Separately from our analysis of the MoD updates on its air strikes, we have collated data from FoI responses that shows the UK has launched 723 missiles and bombs over the past two years in attacking these 499 targets.

Overall, in the five years of UK air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria the UK has used its fire over 4,000 weapons (Table 5).



* Note. For more details about the image of individuals via drone feed used above see: The Caliphate seen by drones: the training of a child – L’Espresso, 10 December 2015