Figures released by the UK government show 43 air strikes have been carried out in Syria by the Royal Air Force under its Operation Shader since offensive activities were extended into the country in December: only a fraction of the total since the campaign began over Iraq in September 2014.
The UK’s participation in the anti-Islamic State effort has been under way for 20 months, during which time it has carried out more than 800 air strikes. This includes 760 in Iraq and 43 in Syria, defence secretary Michael Fallon said on 24 May.
Although the Syrian strikes are markedly low, Fallon says the number of operations carried out by RAF aircraft in support of the effort is more than any other nation after the USA.
Meanwhile, figures released by the government on 29 April in response to a freedom of information request show the reliance the RAF has on the Eurofighter Typhoon in Iraq; an aircraft that was only deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to support the expansion of Shader into Syria.
The UK has three combat types deployed to the Middle East: the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle, the Panavia Tornado GR4 and the Typhoon.
Between January and March, RAF Reapers performed eight air strikes in Iraq and 12 in Syria. Its Tornados carried out 52 and 15, respectively, while the totals for the Typhoon were 104 and two. Raytheon Systems' Paveway IV precision-guided bomb was the weapon of choice for the deployed Typhoon force, which released 252 during this time period, plus 26 rounds from the type's Mauser 27mm cannon.
RAF Reapers released 47 Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles over both theatres, plus five GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. Tornados used 147 Paveway IVs and 42 MBDA Brimstone air-to-surface missiles, the data shows.
Strikes in Iraq were extended to Syria following UK parliamentary approval.
Initially only Reapers and Tornados were deployed in offensive roles, but shortly after the parliamentary decision, six Typhoons were sent to the region, along with a further two GR4s, taking that fleet to 10.
RAF types supporting the operation include Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft, Airbus A330 Voyager tankers, Lockheed C-130J tactical transports, Boeing E-3D Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and Raytheon Sentinel R1 ground surveillance aircraft.
The government says “for operational security reasons” the MoD cannot disclose how many of its 10-strong Reaper fleet are in the Middle East, but it confirms two were initially deployed when operations began in 2014.
The UK is participating in a US-led coalition which includes Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Jordan and the Netherlands in Iraq and Syria, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have committed assets to operate solely over Syria. A NATO E-3A AWACS is available if required, the alliance's secretary general announced in February.
However the UK parliament notes Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have all recently secured parliamentary approval to expand their activities in Syria.
Figures show, as of 10 May, coalition aircraft had flown an estimated 91,821 sorties in support of operations in the two countries. Of those, 12,199 involved air strikes: 8,322 in Iraq and 3,877 in Syria. Some 68% of the coalition's air strikes in Iraq – and 94% in Syria – had been conducted by US aircraft, the UK parliament adds.
The UK said in November it had carried out 8% of coalition air strikes in Iraq, while its Tornados had provided 60% of gathered intelligence. Reaper and Airseeker aircraft, authorised to fly surveillance missions over Syria since October 2014, have also been providing up to 30% of the intelligence there.
The move into offensive attacks in Syria was once a position held only by the USA, but France and the UK followed suit in response to domestic attacks on their citizens. Russian forces have also been heavily involved in combat in Syria and Israel has sent aircraft into Syrian airspace.