MoD casts veil of secrecy over UK drone strikes in Iraq

IssueJune 2015 - July 2015
News by Chris Cole

The British ministry of defence has concealed the details of one in five UK drone strikes in Iraq over the last six months, and held back all location information for two out of five drone strikes there.

Responding to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Drone Wars UK, the MoD reported that 202 British air strikes (by drones and by Tornado aircraft) targeted the ISIS insurgency in Iraq up until the end of March 2015. At least a further 32 strikes have taken place in April according to the MoD’s Iraq Update webpage, giving a minimum total of 234 UK strikes in Iraq at the end of April 2015. 100 of these have been carried out by drones.

ImageWhile the MoD gives brief details of some strikes on its Iraq Update webpage, our latest Freedom of Information request reveals that details of about 20 per cent of the strikes that have taken place in Iraq remain hidden.

While this could conceivably be simply down to sloppy reporting, the MoD told Tom Watson MP in March that, although the ‘over-riding principle is to seek to place information on each strike in the public domain in a prompt and timely manner… detail of each individual strike is carefully considered against the necessary constraint of maintaining missions-vs-strikes operational security’.

In reality although we have overall statistics on numbers of strikes, details of one in five of the UK’s air and drone strikes in Iraq are undisclosed.

These figures also allow us for the first time to compare ‘missions with weapons released’ with ‘number of strikes’ (researchers can sometimes equate the two terms). There is a clear difference (see box).

What is targeted?

Analysis of the strikes that have been reported show that far from being used primarily for intelligence and surveillance purposes, as the MoD repeatedly insist, the UK’s Reaper drones are actually engaged in missile strikes just as often as the UK’s dedicated strike aircraft operating in Iraq.

According to the MoD’s Iraq updates, Reaper drones were on average undertaking 3.5 strikes per week while the Tornado was launching weapons 3.6 times per week.

“Reapers have undertaken 48 percent of UK airstrikes in Iraq.”

In the 25 weeks that both aircraft have been operating in Iraq, we find that Reapers have undertaken 48 percent of UK strikes while the Tornado has undertaken 52 percent.

Information published by the MoD shows that the two aircraft are operating in similar ways and launching strikes against similar targets.

Drone secrecy

The real difference between the two types of aircraft becomes apparent when considering the reporting.

The MoD is happy to report the number of Tornado aircraft taking part in strikes in Iraq and that they are flying from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.

In contrast, the UK refuses to give the number and location of UK Reaper drones taking part in strikes. This secrecy is echoed in reporting of the strikes.

Out of the 108 Tornado strikes detailed, 85 have specific locational details given; an additional 14 strikes have vague details such as ‘western Iraq’. Only nine Tornado strike reports have no location detail at all.

By stark contrast only one Reaper strike – the very first – has specific location details while 47 have vague locational details such as ‘Northern Iraq’.

43 per cent of UK Reaper strikes in Iraq have no location detail at all.

The MoD continues to insists that there is no difference between a Reaper strike and a strike from a ‘manned’ aircraft – leaving aside the ethical arguments about risk and remoteness.

In practice, there is a clear difference in how much detail the MoD is willing to share about the operations of the two types of aircraft, with much lower levels of accountability for drones. This is ominous for the future.


The MoD’s Freedom of Information response also brings further detail about the overall numbers of UK drone missions carried out in Syria.

Although parliament expressly granted authorisation only for the use of military force in Iraq, there had been 40 UK armed Reaper missions in Syria up until the end of March – likely now to be beyond 50.

No details about these missions have been released but the MoD says no UK weapons have been released by UK Reapers in Syria.

Junior foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood stated in a written answer in February that the UK was ‘providing intelligence and surveillance to support coalition partners, who are carrying out air strikes in Syria against ISIL’ (another name for ISIS).

It is likely that information from UK Reapers operating in Syria is being used to carry out strikes there.