On December 3, just a few hours after a vote from the British parliament, the Royal Air Force flew its first airstrike on Islamic State targets inside Syria. The British have been bombing IS targets in Iraq since last year, but this was the first time — amid heated protests at home — they took part in the campaign over Syria.
Because of the increasingly crowded Syrian skies, and the risk of clashes with Russian warplanes also flying over the country, the British contingent also includes Typhoon fighters — arguably the most advanced warplanes today in Europe — armed with air-to-air missiles in order to defend the bombers from air attack. But the most significant British contribution to the campaign may not be in the form of armed jets. The Royal Air Force has been using its considerable surveillance capabilities against IS since the beginning of the campaign, and while a few more bomber planes may look flashy on newscasts, they may not make a huge difference in practical terms. Airplanes devoted to electronic listening, on the other hand, do add a hugely important capability to the international coalition rallied against the Islamic State.
The December 3 raid was carried out by four Tornado GR4 attack planes launched from Akrotiri, a British airbase on Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea which acts the main operating base for Operation Shader, the code name for the British action against IS.
The four bombers, supported by a Voyager aerial refueler and an MQ-9 Reaper drone, dropped their Paveway IV laser-guided bombs against six targets on an IS-controlled oilfield at Omar in an attempt to cut off the group's oil revenue – the first of several attacks on the oilfield. Beginning on Friday, December 4, six Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 multirole aircraft deployed to Cyprus, along with two more Tornados, joined in.
That doubled the size of the British strike force. With 16 aircraft overall, the British quickly became the third-biggest partner by size of the air contingent in the coalition fighting the Islamic State, after the United States and France.
But what's the actual impact of these 16 aircraft in the overall air campaign?
The aging but still effective Tornado forms the backbone of the British strike force. The swing-wing, two-seat attack planes have been operating over Iraq since August 2014, when they escorted, and filmed with their reconnaissance pods, RAF Hercules cargo planes performing a humanitarian aid air drop over Mount Sinjar.
The first mission in support of Operation Shader was launched on September 27, 2014. Three days later, the Tornados hit their first IS target, a "technical" (an armed pick-up truck). In a little more than one year of missions over Iraq, RAF Tornado jets have carried out hundreds of strike and armed-reconnaissance missions against terrorist targets. About 60 percent of the US-led coalition's entire tactical reconnaissance in Iraq has come so far from the British Tornados.
Their payload varies according to the type of mission. For reconnaissance missions, the Tornados carry the RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Air Pod For Tornado) – which includes an electro-optical and infra-red sensor, an image recording system, and a datalink, which lets the planes record images day and night and transmit them in real time.
The most common load for strike missions includes a single rack of three Brimstone missiles and two Paveway IV bombs along with the Rafael Litening III targeting pod. The Brimstone, derived from the famous AGM-114 Hellfire commonly used by drones, is especially effective against the pickup trucks and other fast, light vehicles favored by IS. First used in 2008 in Afghanistan, the Brimstone is a relatively small anti-armor missile with a 9 kg (20 lb) warhead and a range of 7.5 miles (12 km). It uses a millimeter-wave radar seeker with a semi-active laser that enables final guidance to the target by either the launching platform or another aircraft, including drones. The Brimstones have become the RAF's weapon of choice since the air war over Libya back in 2011, and are very effective at destroying vehicles with very low collateral damage risk, and an accuracy of about one to two meters – meaning they have a margin of error of six feet maximum.
The Tornado can also carry two Storm Shadow missiles, but those are big, expensive weapons that would see little use in Syria although they've been used extensively in Libya in 2011 by both the British and Italians. They are stealthy, 1,300 kg (2,900 lb) cruise missiles designed for use against very high-value targets in any weather, with a range of hundreds of miles. There is probably no target in Syria worth the $1.4 million that each one costs, short of a surefire hit against a top target in a heavily defended building – the Islamic State's so-called caliph himself, for example.
A British Typhoon FGR4 fighter jet returns to Akrotiri after a mission against the Islamic State on December 3, 2015. Photo by Stavros Koniotis/EPA
Flying in "mixed pairs" with Tornados are the Typhoon FGR4s, the RAF's most modern aircraft. The Eurofighter, as it is also known, is a multirole combat plane that couples stunning maneuverability and performance with cutting-edge sensors. Using such a complex jet in Syria may seem overkill, especially because it doesn't have some of the air-to-surface weapons carried by the Tornado. But it is equipped with superior radar and self-defense systems that are extremely useful in improving situational awareness in Syria's crowded airspace. Russian aircraft have started flying with air-to-air missiles after one of their own was shot down by a Turkish F-16 on November 24. That's why the Typhoons are teaming with the Tornados: They are able to build the "air picture" by fusing the information gathered by their onboard sensors as well as by other assets, including AWACS radar planes and spy aircraft, and share it with the Tornados by means of secure datalink, something the aging bombers can not do autonomously.
The Typhoons taking part in the first Syria missions carried four AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles to take care of any aerial threat, along with Paveway IV bombs destined for ground targets.
But the really important task the British are performing over Syria is surveillance. No one can bomb IS targets if the coalition doesn't know what and where they are, and helping find them from the skies over Syria and Iraq is the job of British MQ-9 Reaper drones, Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint spyplanes, and Sentinel R1 surveillance jets.
The drones are used to carry out surveillance as well as strike missions. The Rivet Joints, a derivative of the old Boeing 707 passenger plane, are SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) aircraft equipped with all sorts of antennae and sensors to eavesdrop on enemy transmissions and detect frequencies used by radio and radars, pinpointing where the emissions come from. And the Sentinels are part of the Airborne STand-Off Radar or ASTOR, system, which detects and tracks enemy ground forces. The Sentinel uses a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) to build the ground picture, gain insight into what is happening on the ground, and detect suspicious activities. In the past, the Sentinels have supported operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, helping planners discover and track targets. Many Islamic State militants owe their demise to the Sentinels' sharp eyes.
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