What the British military really contributes in Syria
British Parliament will vote on Wednesday on whether it should extend RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria.
The US Central Command claims to have destroyed over 16,000 targets in the campaign to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria as of mid-November.
As well as the involvement of US Navy aircraft from carrier battle groups, multiple US Air Force squadrons are operating from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, and from bases in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
These assets include specialist aircraft including the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft and formidable B-1B Lancer heavy bombers that are available to no other coalition partners.
Furthermore, since the Paris attacks last month, France has increased its air force and naval attack jets that are conducting strikes in Syria. Other coalition partners such as Australia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia also continue to contribute aircraft to ongoing operations.
Within this context, UK’s RAF has a contribution of eight percent of the total coalition air strikes against ISIL in Iraq – around 350 targets destroyed. It is tactically, but not strategically, significant.
RAF’s deployed aircraft include eight Tornado GR.4 strike bombers and 10 MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS). The Reapers already fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over Syria with armaments but, barring specific circumstances, confine their ground attack capabilities to Iraq.
The eight Tornados are meant to ensure that at least two are available for operations over Iraq at any given time. The 10 Reapers allow between two and three relatively local ‘orbits’ where an aircraft is overhead a given mission area at all times for as long as necessary.
There is discussion of augmenting this force with a further two Tornado jets and potentially up to six Eurofighter Typhoon multirole fighters, assuming the British Parliament votes on Wednesday to extend the air strikes to Syria.
Even within that context, however, the total RAF strike force will be relatively small compared to the huge weight of USAF and wider coalition striking power available. Furthermore, they will still presumably be required to conduct missions over Iraq to support the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in their attempts to push ISIL back.
That will mean only some of the RAF aircraft in theatre will be available for operation over Syria at any given time. It is also worth noting that many strike missions in Iraq and Syria conducted by coalition aircraft end without dropping any bombs due to a shortage of viable targets.
The limiting factors in finding targets is ISIL’s ability to conceal their equipment and fighters within civilian populations, and the very high level of demand on the limited ISR aircraft available to the coalition to find, track and guide armed aircraft to targets.
ISR aircraft helping find and identify more ISIL targets in Syria would certainly increase the capability of the coalition to strike the group effectively. As David Cameron pointed out in his statement to the House of Commons, RAF Reapers already supply up to 30 percent of coalition ISR in Syria.
Allowing these Reapers to use their Paveway II laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles would slightly increase coalition firepower but would not significantly alter the strategic capability of the coalition to defeat ISIL.
The US Air Force already operates large numbers of Reapers over Syria with the same weapons. The RAF’s other ISR aircraft deployed against ISIL such as the RC-135W Airseeker (known as Rivet Joint in US service) and the Sentinel R.1 ground-scanning radar aircraft are also already operating over Syria as they are not armed.
Therefore, a vote on Wednesday to extend strikes to Syria would not increase the specialised ISR assets available to coalition forces there, which is what is really in short supply.
The RAF’s dedicated ground attack and tactical reconnaissance fast jet, the Tornado GR.4, would be a notable addition to the firepower arranged against ISIL in Syria.
RAF Tornado crews are extremely experienced in conducting close-air support and anti-insurgent interdiction specialists after Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Tornado in UK service carries Paveway IV bombs and the vaunted Brimstone missile.
Opinion: Rushing to bomb Syria would be lunacy
Paveway IV is a British precision guided bomb which offers significantly greater precision over its US-made equivalents. It also comes with selective fuse options to adjust blast radius and shrapnel to minimise collateral damage.
Brimstone is an extremely precise British anti-vehicle missile with a very small warhead which reduces collateral damage and allows more missiles to be carried by each aircraft. The small warhead allows targets previously considered too close to civilians or friendly forces to be attacked with minimal risk of collateral damage and has proven highly effective in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.
However, no matter how effective the RAF Tornado and its crews would be in Syria, there are simply too few of them to make a real strategic difference to the situation on the ground in Syria through military means.
They would be welcome and useful combat assets in the campaign against ISIL in Syria, as they have been in Iraq. But they cannot change the established strengths and limitations of the air campaign as a whole.
A decision to extend the UK’s strike role in the air campaign against ISIL into Syria must, therefore, hinge on the geopolitical reasons for doing so. Solidarity with France and the US, as well as showing Britain is willing to take on part of the responsibility for fighting against ISIL are strong arguments for military action.
Equally, the concerns of those who point to the lack of a concrete strategy for defeating ISIL, or for any acceptable political solution to the catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war, are well-founded.
These issues, not a misguided belief that British bombs can tip the scale, must decide the vote.