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In terms of sortie generation and increasing the number of strikes against individual Daesh targets, extending the current British combat airpower contingent committed against Daesh in Iraq to cover Syria too will not make a very significant difference to the coalition.
Multiple US Air Force (USAF) squadrons are operating from Incirlik air base in Turkey, as well as from bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region. These include specialist A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft and formidable B-1B Lancer heavy bombers.
France has increased the number of Mirage 2000, Dassault Rafale and Super Étendard Modernisé attack jets conducting strikes in Syria since the Paris attacks, whilst Australia and other coalition partners such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia continue to contribute aircraft to ongoing operations.
RAF strike power: the Tornado and the Reaper
The RAF’s striking power in the campaign currently comprises eight Tornado GR.4 attack jets and ten MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS). RAF Reapers already fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over both Syria and Iraq, but currently only conduct regular armed missions in the latter. Whilst the combat power of this sustainable long-term RAF commitment is impressive, it is not huge compared to the weight of firepower which the coalition as a whole, and the USAF in particular, can bring to bear against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria. This ratio may be slightly improved if additional Tornado and potentially Typhoon aircraft are deployed, as is currently under consideration.
The RAF has so far conducted around 8 per cent of total coalition airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq. Furthermore, aircraft returning from sorties over Iraq and Syria without employing their weapons due to a lack of viable targets is a common occurrence for all coalition partners.
This points to two crucial elements of this campaign: Daesh has become adept at concealment and dispersal of its forces amongst civilian patterns of life to hide from coalition air power, and the most serious deficiency the coalition faces in Iraq and Syria is a shortage of ISR assets to help find and fix illusive and often fleeting Daesh targets.
The RAF’s MQ-9 Reaper RPAS are certainly excellent battlefield ISR assets, but the extension of a political mandate to cover kinetic strikes to Syria will not substantively change this. As Mr Cameron pointed out in his statement to the House of Commons, RAF Reapers have been carrying out ISR missions for the coalition over Syria for many months and already supply up to 30 per cent of coalition ISR in the country. Extending their capabilities to allow them to use their Hellfire missiles and 500lb GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs would add to coalition firepower, but would not be a strategic or even tactical game-changer.
The USAF already operates numerous MQ-9 orbits over Syria, armed with the same weapons as RAF aircraft. The RAF also operates its Sentinel R.1 airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft over Syria, providing high-definition and wide-area synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mapping to complement the USAF’s hard-pressed Joint-STARS aircraft in the same crucial ISR role. Equally, it seems reasonable to assume that the RAF’s new Airseeker electronic signals-gathering aircraft – which is a UK-operated version of the American RC-135W Rivet Joint – is also already operating over both Iraq and Syria alongside the rest of the US fleet.
In other words, whilst the most valuable help that the UK can offer to the air campaign against Daesh in Syria is in the ISR space, almost all the ISR assets that the RAF can offer the coalition have already been in operation over Syria for many months.
The one RAF asset in the region which has been so far confined to Iraq is the Tornado GR.4 attack bomber. This aircraft has been combat-proven over almost twenty-five years of constant operations over the Middle East. The RAF Tornado crews, working as a pair in each aircraft, are certainly some of the finest close-air support and anti-insurgent interdiction specialists in the world after a decade of experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They also carry both Paveway IV bombs and the much-lauded Brimstone missile.
RAF ordnance: Paveway and Brimstone
The Paveway IV is a UK-developed dual-mode seeker, smart-fused, precision-guided bomb. Its advantages over US laser- and GPS-guided bombs are significantly greater precision, allowing a lower explosive weight for a given target type, and selective fuse options to allow blast radius and shrapnel fragmentation to be tailored for multiple target sets. It can be used against fixed or moving targets in most weather conditions.
Brimstone is widely considered to be the most accurate air-launched anti-vehicle missile in the world, thanks to a millimetric-wave radar seeker which can recognise and hit individual parts of target vehicles. The dual-mode version also possesses laser-guidance capability so that a launch-aircraft can actively guide it onto specific moving targets in crowded environments. Due to the weapon’s extreme accuracy, the dual-shaped charge warhead is significantly smaller than comparable weapons such as the US-made Hellfire series, which both reduces collateral damage and allows more missiles to be carried by each aircraft (up to twelve per Tornado).
The Tornado can also be equipped with the DB-110 RAPTOR tactical reconnaissance pod, which is the most capable wide-area, high-resolution tactical reconnaissance system available to the coalition. The prime minister said Tornadoes with RAPTOR had provided up to 60 per cent of coalition tactical reconnaissance in Iraq. It would certainly be a valuable asset in Syria.
However, whilst the kinetic capabilities which the RAF can bring to the fight against Daesh in Syria are advanced and potent, their effect on overall coalition firepower will be welcome but not transformational. Meanwhile, the RAF’s excellent ISR capabilities, which are in huge demand in Syria, have already been operating there for many months. Thus, apart from extending Tornado RAPTOR-equipped tactical reconnaissance missions, a vote in favour of air strikes would not significantly increase Britain’s ISR contributions in Syria. Prime Minister Cameron cannot therefore make the case for British kinetic involvement on the technical argument alone. Any decision to extend UK strike operations to Syria must hinge on geopolitical judgements rather than operational considerations.
Research Analyst in Combat Airpower, Military Sciences
*Header image: an RAF Tornado GR.4 training in north west England. Crown copyright 2012