UK airstrikes in Iraq hit 100 – one third by drones

IssueFebruary 2015 - March 2015
News by Chris Cole

On 12 January, the secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, told the house of commons that there had been 99 UK airstrikes in Iraq since the beginning of the air campaign on 22 October. The following day, the ministry of defence (MoD) reported a further strike bringing the total to 100. By our calculations, using reports published by the MoD on their website, approximately one-third of the airstrikes have been carried out by the UK’s armed Reaper drones.

However, it appears that not all British airstrikes are being recorded on the MoD website. And when they are, it isn’t always possible to know from the details provided by the MoD whether multiple weapon releases are being counted as a single strike or several strikes. For example, on 12 November, a Reaper drone identified and attacked three Islamic State/ISIS positions using its Hellfire missiles. This could be counted as one, two or three strikes (we have counted it as one).

As freelance journalist Chris Woods, who monitors the air war in Iraq and Syria, wrote recently ‘the term “airstrike” can be misleading’:

‘U.S. defense officials concede that what they report as a single incident might involve the targeting of numerous locations. British and Australian statements describe a recent bombing raid on an alleged Islamic State bunker system near Kirkuk that involved 20 aircraft from seven countries and that hit 44 targets. In its own reporting of the incident, Centcom [US central command, which is in charge of US military operations in the region] describes just three “strikes”.’

In addition, on two occasions (20 November and 19 December), the original reports published by the MoD on their website have subsequently been edited, seemingly to reduce the amount of detail they contain.

Unanswered questions

Meanwhile the MoD have again refused to give details of the number of armed drones deployed overseas since the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The MoD told Drone Wars UK on 19 December that 10 British Reapers had been ‘relocated to the United Kingdom and the Middle East’ but did not provide details of numbers. On 12 January, the defence minister Mark Francois told Tom Watson MP, chair of the all party parliamentary group on drones that he was ‘withholding the exact number of UK Reapers that have relocated to the UK for reasons of safeguarding operational security’.

On the other hand, the government has been happy to detail the number of Tornado aircraft taking part in airstrikes in Iraq and their location (RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus).

Similarly, the UK has regularly detailed the number and location of Reapers and other UK aircraft taking part in military operations in Afghanistan without suggesting that the release of this information would cause security problems.

One possible explanation for the secrecy is that keeping current deployment numbers and locations secret gives the government the option of using the drones elsewhere.

Last July, the MoD minister, Mark Francois, told the commons that ‘the Ministry of Defence may notify Parliament of the deployment of UK Reaper remotely piloted aircraft systems, but there is no intention for parliamentary approval to be sought prior to each deployment or redeployment’.

There have been persistent reports that French forces operating Reaper drones over Mali from Niamey in Niger expected UK Reapers to join them after operations ended in Afghanistan. US forces in Africa have also requested more drones.

Mission creep

In addition, although MPs were very clear when voting for military operations against ISIS that they were only approving the use of force in Iraq, within a week of the Reapers being deployed, the defence secretary announced that they were also to be used for surveillance missions in Syria.

The Telegraph reported that the prime minister had indicated that the Reapers could launch strikes in Syria ‘if urgent action was needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis, or protect a British national interest, such as a hostage’. Asked by the Guardian why parliament had not been consulted about the use of UK drones in Syria, Cameron’s deputy official spokesman stated that it was because the flights did not amount to military action.

Over the past few weeks there has been growing pressure from US military planners on foreign political leaders to deploy more drones and other intelligence assets over Syria to gather more information for operations against ISIS in Syria.

Secrecy has surrounded the use of armed drones and there has been a major push over the past two years by civil society groups, legislators and UN officials for greater transparency. The UK’s refusal to detail how many of its armed Reaper drones have been deployed – and exactly where – is a step backwards for transparency and will lower accountability further. This is exactly the opposite of what needs to be happening at a time when many other nations are seeking to deploy such systems.