UK air war in Middle East continues with no end in sight

UK aircraft and drones have carried out almost 120 air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the fall of ISIS in March 2019

The latest response to our quarterly FoI request to the Ministry of Defence on UK armed air operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brings us up to two full years since the end of ISIS’ so-called Caliphate in March 2019.

The figures give a glimpse of continuing UK air operations in the Middle East  but with a significant hole in the middle. Although the government has confirmed the RAF Reapers are now also undertaking operations outside of those against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they continue to refuse to give any details of those missions.  All the MoD will say is that “the UK Reaper fleet is currently based in the Middle Eastern Region.”

The latest figures for Operation Shader (we’ve updated our summary here) show that the UK is fast approaching 10,000 armed air missions in Iraq and Syria since the launch of operations in 2014. Of those, just over a fifth (2,203) have taken place since Kurdish forces overran ISIS’ last stronghold – the village of Baghuz in Eastern Syria – in March 2019. Roughly two-thirds of UK armed air missions in Iraq since March 2019 have been conducted by RAF Reapers with a third by Typhoons, while in Syria it almost the exact reverse, with just a third of UK Syria missions being carried out by UK drones.  Read more

‘All the warfare of the future’: Drones, new technology and the Integrated Review

At the beginning of March, the government will publish its long-awaited Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, known (thankfully) as ‘The Integrated Review’.  It’s purpose is to “define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role in the world and the long-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy.”

When published, the Integrated Review will likely focus on strategy and overarching themes rather than detail specific projects (a White Paper is expected soon after to flesh out equipment plans). However, it is already clear from statements made by ministers and senior military officers that in terms of defence and security, investment in emerging military technology such as direct energy, cyber, AI, and in particular, drones, is seen as key for the UK’s ‘involvement in the world’.

The clearest indication of this came in Boris Johnson’s statement to the House of Commons on defence spending in late November. Framed as an update on the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister announced a significant budget increase, declaring that UK military spending would be around £190 billion over the next four years.  Again and again during his statement, Johnson returned to the government’s commitment to , as he put it, ‘the new technologies of warfare’:

“Our new investment [is] to be focused on the technologies that will revolutionise warfare, forging our military assets into a single network designed to overcome the enemy. A soldier in hostile territory will be alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones, instantly transmitting a warning, using artificial intelligence to devise the optimal response and offering an array of options, from summoning an airstrike to ordering a swarm attack by drones, or paralysing the enemy with cyber-weapons. New advances will surmount the old limits of logistics. Our warships and combat vehicles will carry “directed energy weapons”, destroying targets with inexhaustible lasers. For them, the phrase “out of ammunition” will become redundant.”

Asked about research and development spending, Johnson added

“There is big, big chunk of this package specifically dedicated to research and development in cyber, AI and drone warfare – all the warfare of the future.  The victors of the future will be those who are able to master data and new technology in the way that this package supports.”

And Johnson isn’t the only one talking up the UK’s commitment to drones and new military technology.  Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested last summer that 90% of the RAF’s aircraft will be unmanned drones by 2040, insisting that the Army would have to give up assets such as tanks in order to have more drones and other modern equipment. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, told Sky News on Remembrance Sunday that the British army of the 2030s could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines while leaks to The Times indicated that the size of the British army could be cut by 10,000 as part of ‘an increased focus on unmanned drones and vehicles along with enhanced technological capabilities.’

While the direction of travel is increasingly clear, the question to be asked, then, is what is behind the embrace of drones, autonomy and other emerging technology? What does it indicate about how the government sees the UK’s role in the world that we are investing so heavily in these systems?  Read more