The US Air Force has begun conducting armed unmanned air vehicle (UAV) operations over Baghdad, to protect advisers deployed to aid in the fight against insurgent militants in Iraq.

The UAVs are flying alongside armed manned aircraft, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm John Kirby said in a statement on 30 June, and have been deployed to escort US military advisers who have entered the country to help the Iraqi government counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) terrorist movement.

ISIS – a splinter group from an array of terrorist organisations including Al-Qaeda – has been occupying areas of Iraq in the past month, and is believed to be operating in Iraq and Syria as a result of the civil unrest that is underway in the latter country.

"The reason that some of those aircraft are armed is primarily for force protection reasons, now that we have introduced into the country some military advisers whose objective will be to operate outside the confines of the [US] embassy,” Kirby notes.

According to the USAF, 90 Americans on six teams are assessing conditions in the Baghdad region, while a further 90 US citizens are setting up a joint operations centre in the city. Some 500 US personnel in total are currently said to be in Iraq supporting the counter-ISIS activity.

Aircraft are flying 30-40 missions a day, and data collected is being shared with Iraqi forces. Although Kirby did not stipulate which UAVs are being used, the USAF’s most combat-proven unmanned armed capability is the MQ-9 Reaper, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

MQ-9 - US Air Force

US Air Force

Although the USA has not made a decision on whether it will participate in a conflict in Iraq, Kirby notes that “it would be irresponsible” not to prepare for that eventuality.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $500 million for fiscal year 2015 to help train and equip moderate elements of the opposition battling the Assad regime in neighbouring Syria, the USAF statement notes.

Alongside Washington’s commitment to the fight against ISIS, the Iraqi government has also received capabilities that will enable it to carry out airborne strike and reconnaissance in recent weeks. These include the delivery in the USA of the first of 36 Lockheed Martin F-16IQ Block 52 fighters on 5 June, as well as five Sukhoi Su-25 ground-attack aircraft from Russia that were delivered on 28 June.

In addition, in May the US state department approved the possible sale of 24 Beechcraft AT-6C basic trainer/light attack aircraft to Iraq. That deal is worth a potential $790 million, also including spares, training, and logistics delivered under the US Foreign Military Sales structure.