Tim Street: 2020 marks a century of the UK using air power to control the region

Tim Street


The UK’s involvement in the Iraq war may have ended in 2011, but rather than learning the lessons of that conflict, the UK continues to conduct military operations in the region. Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), Drone Wars has discovered that since 2014 the UK has conducted 3,849 missions using Reaper armed drones in Iraq and Syria, for intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and armed strikes. During this period Reaper drones fired weapons 982 times.

Earlier this month, Drone Wars also found out that the UK has begun to use private contractors to launch and recover its Reaper drones. This practice raises important ethical and legal questions, as well as concerns about oversight and accountability. If we are to fully understand the UK’s controversial use of drones in Iraq and the Middle East, we also need to revisit the UK’s long history of using air power to exercise control over the region.

Outsourcing the UK’s Drone Wars

The revelation regarding the use of private contractors for Reaper comes as a new FOI response from the Ministry of Defence reveals an increase in the number of UK airstrikes in Iraq over the past quarter. According to the FOI data, UK Reaper and Typhoon aircraft launched 32 airstrikes (or ‘Weapon Release Events’ as the MOD now describes them) against ISIS from April to June 2020.  Not since the end of the battle to regain control of Mosul in 2017 has the UK launched that number of strikes in Iraq. There have been no UK airstrikes in Syria since July 2019.

According to information uncovered by Drone Wars, private contractors, as well as Australian air force pilots embedded with UK forces, have begun to operate British drones. This news was discovered in data sheets attached to the annual report of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), which investigates major government projects, including military equipment. A contract award on the Pentagon website also indicates that US arms company General Atomics are providing personnel to undertake the take-off and landing of UK Reaper missions.

The IPA’s report includes an assessment of progress on the delivery of the UK’s new Protector armed drone, which is set to replace the Reaper fleet in the early 2020s. Australia is purchasing the same type of drone for operations from 2022/3, and is no doubt happy for some of its air force pilots embedded with the RAF to acquire related experience operating Reaper drones.

Another key reason why Australian pilots are operating Reaper is because of problems the RAF has recruiting and retaining aircrew to operate armed drones. UK officials have previously expressed concern that such aircrew shortages put the Protector drone programme at risk. However, the IPA report states that confidence in the Protector programme has been improved by ‘a steady increase in overall Reaper Force crew numbers’. This has been created through ‘improved retention; Royal Australian Air Force exchange officers; and a pathway to using contractors to relieve Royal Air Force personnel at the deployed location’.

The use of private contractors to operate armed UK Reaper drones on combat missions— even if only at the beginning and end of the mission—is highly controversial.  Recruitment, screening and management of the individuals concerned is outside the military chain of command and raises obvious concerns. In addition, the legal status of these contractors is uncertain.  As they are carrying out a military role they are not considered civilians, yet they are also not military personnel.

A Century On: The UK’s Use of Air Power in Iraq

The UK’s recent military operations in Iraq and the Middle East can only be fully understood in relation to the historical record. 2020 in fact marks a century of the UK using air power to control the region. David E. Omissi describes how Winston Churchill believed that Mesopotamia (which at that point contained Iraq) ‘could be cheaply policed by aircraft armed with gas bombs’. Following Churchill’s proposals for ‘aerial policing’, RAF bombers were used to attack various rebel groups in the region in the 1920s.

BBC journalist Marek Pruszewicz notes that up until World War Two, ‘the RAF maintained its military control over Iraq…even after Iraqi independence in 1932’, yet there was ‘apparently little debate about the morality of bombing.’ Moreover, Professor Priya Satia points out that the ‘aerial strategy’ developed by the UK in the Middle East between World War One and World War Two influenced the US’s approach to war. Satia argues that the ‘reflexive recourse to an aerial strategy still in the Middle East is not a coincidence. It comes out of this long history that this part of the world can take it.’

More recently, in 1990 the RAF conducted operations in and over the region alongside the US during the first Gulf War, including to enforce the economic sanctions on Iraq. The United Nation’s humanitarian co-ordinators in Iraq from 1997 to 2000 were Denis Halliday and, subsequently, Hans von Sponeck. Both resigned in protest of the sanctions, which Halliday described as ‘genocidal’.

However, the RAF didn’t leave the region after the end of the war, and in 2003 the UK used its air power again in the invasion of Iraq, with its subsequent military mission lasting until 2009. In terms of armed drones, the RAF began using Reaper in Afghanistan in October 2007, with the first British drone strike taking place at the end of May 2008. In October 2014, Reaper drones were deployed for operations against ISIS in Iraq, and then, from December 2015, in Syria. The UK has never officially confirmed where its Reapers are based in the Middle East, but it is widely thought to be Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait.

Drone Wars recently found out that Reaper is also being used for missions outside of the existing operation targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, the MOD refused to disclose how many of these missions there have been, their purpose, or where they are taking place. MPs and Peers have also asked questions in parliament to try to get information from the government. However, they have been told that the location and use of Reaper for these missions cannot be revealed on grounds of national security.

There are a few possibilities for where these secret operations are taking place. These include the Middle East, Gulf Region or other locations where UK troops are or will be stationed, such as the Sahel region in Africa. However, without transparency from the British government, all we are left with is speculation and rumour. The secrecy surrounding Reaper is a serious problem. In our democracy we should be able to get answers on this issue from the government. If we can’t, the government can do what it wants with zero accountability for the consequences.

Continuity and Change

The simplest answer to the question of why the UK is still conducting offensive air operations in Iraq—particularly at a time when the government should be focusing its energy and resources on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic—is that this is what the UK has done for the last hundred years. Some things have changed of course. The UK now uses advanced drone technology and is a junior partner in the US’s wars rather than an imperial power.

In 2015, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted that the invasion and occupation of Iraq likely played a role in the creation of ISIS. However, this admission has not altered Whitehall’s belief that the UK has a responsibility and right to exercise influence over the political affairs of the Middle East. Such beliefs are deeply held and will persist unless and until the British public demand a fundamental change of direction in the UK’s defence and foreign policy.

26 Aug 2020

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