The Buzz

This Is Great Britian's Master Plan to Crush ISIS

COALITION AIR BASE, Persian Gulf Region—Framed by a matted khaki sky, a Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone armed with four Hellfire missiles and two GBU-12 laser-guided bombs takes off from this undisclosed location.

The unmanned aircraft is on its way to Iraq or Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition air war against the Islamic State, the terrorist army also known as ISIS.

There is a 16.1 percent chance the Reaper will not return with the same number of rockets and bombs with which it took off, according to RAF data.

“We’re looking for deep targets,” RAF Group Capt. Jim Frampton told The Daily Signal.

“Leadership, foreign fighters, finances. This platform lets us understand how Daesh is functioning,” Frampton added, using a disparaging Arabic acronym for ISIS.

In a trailer beside a hangar at the airfield, two RAF pilots remotely control the drone through taxi, takeoff, and departure. They make radio calls with local air traffic control to avoid civilian aircraft.

Once clear of local airspace, they transfer control of the drone to British pilots at either Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom. From thousands of miles away, pilots sitting in front of computer screens will remotely pilot the Reaper through its combat mission.

The Daily Signal was among the first news organizations to visit the Royal Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper fleet, deployed to the Middle East as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Due to security concerns, the pilots spoke with The Daily Signal under the condition that their names and faces would not be revealed.

‘More Deliberate’:

Drones like the Reaper conduct the bulk of airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in the air war against the Islamic State.

Advances in technology, as well as the exclusion of coalition ground forces from the fight,  means drones play a more prominent role in Operation Inherent Resolve than in previous counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The British Reapers (the U.S. also operates Reapers) can stay aloft for more than 13 hours. Their bread and butter mission, which RAF pilots say is critical to the overall war effort, is to covertly surveil ISIS targets to develop “pattern of life” information.

In an effort to limit collateral damage, pilots painstakingly monitor potential targets for the presence of civilians before launching missiles or dropping bombs.

The coalition relies on drones, as well as other aircraft, to conduct airborne bomb damage assessments to gauge the results of airstrikes.

“I don’t think we would be as precise as we are without RPAs [remotely piloted aircraft],” said U.S. Air Force Col. Clarence Lukes Jr., commander of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing, the U.S. unit to which the British Reapers are attached. “It allows us to be more deliberate and not as reactive.”

“This is probably the most precise air campaign in the history of any type of warfare we’ve ever been a part of,” Lukes said.

The RAF Reapers also help gather intelligence that might lead to crippling attacks on ISIS. Since drones can orbit overhead for much longer than manned aircraft, they allow more time to discover other enemy targets.

Sometimes small groups of ISIS fighters in “technicals”–military parlance for pickup trucks with weapons mounted in the back bed–might lead the way to command posts, weapons caches, or leadership hubs. Strategic targets like these take longer to identify, but they also deal a more significant blow than does killing small groups of fighters the moment they’re spotted.

“Because the Reaper is a persistent asset, you don’t have to hit everything the first time you see it,” Frampton said.

Not for Show:

The U.K.’s military operation to counter the Islamic State began with humanitarian missions in August 2014 to relieve Iraqi Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar during an ISIS massacre.

Operation Shader, the U.K.’s land and air contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve, came the next month. The first airstrikes in Iraq were on Sept. 30 and the first RAF Reaper airstrike in Iraq was on Nov. 10, 2014.

The U.K. began airstrikes in Syria following a contentious House of Commons vote last Dec. 2 in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris in November.

Prior to the parliamentary vote, British Reapers had been flying only surveillance missions over Syria. Now, RAF Reapers routinely fly both surveillance and airstrike missions over Iraq and Syria. And the pace of operations has been frenetic.

“The intensity can go from zero to 100 really quickly,” a RAF squadron leader told The Daily Signal.

The U.K. used drones in Afghanistan, and there was about a six-month overlap in which British Reapers were operating there as well as in Operation Inherent Resolve. Now, Reapers fly missions only over Iraq and Syria, RAF officials said.

According to British and American military personnel, the British Reapers have played an important role in the air war against ISIS—often with lethal effect.

As of April 28, the RAF Reapers had released 369 weapons over the course of 1,234 total missions. Sometimes the drones released multiple weapons on one flight, but overall, 16.1 percent of the Reaper missions involve an airstrike, according to RAF data.

Pilots say the drones also have a less quantifiable, but equally important, part in degrading ISIS—breeding fear.

“We put the fear of God in Daesh’s heart,” said a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel in the 46th Expeditionary Aerial Reconnaissance Squadron, the RAF Reapers’ umbrella unit. (U.S. MQ-1 Predator drones operate alongside the Reapers from the same deployed location.)