The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed in response to an FoI request from Drone Wars UK that British Reaper drones are undertaking missions outside of Operation Shader, the UK’s military operation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The MoD has refused to say how many ‘non-Shader’ sorties there have been, or where they are taking place.
There has been no suggestion until now that British drones are undertaking operations elsewhere. Answers to previous parliamentary questions and FoI’s requests about the use of RAF Reapers have all indicated that since late 2014, they have only been used as part of Operation Shader. The one exception was the mission that undertook the targeted killing of Reyaad Khan in August 2015, which the MoD subsequently insisted was not part of Operation Shader.
While it is theoretically possible that the sorties referred to are non-operational, such as training or testing of equipment, it is unlikely that the MoD would have refused to disclosure such details under the exemptions cited. While we are merely speculating, it is possible that UK Reaper drones have participated in Operation Kipion / the US-led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) monitoring shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, be undertaking missions elsewhere in the Middle East (perhaps even within Iraq or Syria but targeting non-ISIS groups) or may even be undertaking missions in the Sahel ahead of the deployment of UK troops there later this year. Without transparency, all that is left is speculation and rumour.
We have long argued that a key danger of these remotely-operated systems is that they enable military operations without public or parliamentary scrutiny. Without proper oversight and accountability, secret deployments such as this potentially draw us down the rabbit hole of unaccountable military action which could quickly spiral out of control. The government must reveal where British Reaper drone sorties are taking place, the purpose of those operations, and whether any strikes have occurred. Due to their special capabilities, particularly how they enable targeted killing operations and appear to be lowering the threshold for the use of force, there is a strong argument now that all deployments of the UK’s armed drones should be subject to parliamentary approval.
Meanwhile, the FoI also detailed Reaper sorties carried out as part of Operation Shader for the last quarter of 2019 and we have updated our stats page. Overall in 2019 there were 527 UK Reaper missions (326 in Iraq, 201 in Syria) and 565 UK manned armed aircraft missions (61 in Iraq and 504 in Syria) against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.. It is noticeable that the majority of UK missions in Iraq in 2019 were undertaken by drones (84% Reaper / 16% manned aircraft), while in Syria, the majority of UK flights were undertaken by manned aircraft (29% Reaper / 71% manned aircraft). A total of 104 weapons were fired by British aircraft against ISIS in 2019, 41 in Iraq and 63 in Syria.