The UK government confirms it is in the process of redeploying some of its 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicles to support the US-led coalition’s air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Currently operating in Afghanistan, an undisclosed number of the Royal Air Force’s Reapers will now be sent to operate over Iraq, defence secretary Michael Fallon announced on 16 October.
“We are redeploying Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft from Afghanistan to be based in the Middle East for use against [the Islamic State],” Fallon says. “This deployment will complement our existing capabilities, which provide highly valued surveillance support and situational awareness to the Iraqi authorities and our coalition partners.”
No detail of the precise numbers to be sent was provided, but is understood that two of the 10 Reapers operated out of RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire in the east of England will be sent to join the air strikes, operating alongside similar aircraft flown by the US Air Force.
“We expect to begin Reaper operations in Iraq shortly,” Fallon adds.
This will be the first deployment of the UK’s Reapers outside Afghanistan, but Fallon points out that as the RAF aircraft are withdrawn from Afghanistan, more will be moved to the Middle Eastern theatre.
The UK government voted in support of joining the air strikes in Iraq on 26 September, and began operations with Panavia GR4 Tornados equipped with Rafael Litening III targeting pods and armed with Raytheon Paveway IV precision-guided bombs and MBDA Brimstone missiles on 30 September.
An initial fleet of six Tornados was deployed from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, with two more being added days later.
“As the UK’s only armed remotely-piloted aircraft, Reaper will add to the strike capability we are already providing with our Tornado GR4 aircraft,” Fallon says. “The policy for their use is the same as that for manned aircraft, with the pilots operating under strict UK rules of engagement.”
The UK’s participation only allows it to conduct strikes over Iraq, but the USA, alongside five Arab states, is carrying out strikes over Syria.
“It is true that in military terms this is a single theatre of operations,” foreign secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons in parallel with Fallon’s announcement. “If we see that there is a military case for the UK to take part in air strikes in Syria we will bring a debate to the house.”
“There is more than enough air power in Syria,” Hammond says, referring to conversations he has had with leadership in the USA. “What is needed is more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”