Britain’s Air War Against ISIL: Combat Aircraft


On the 26th September 2014, the British Parliament voted 524 to 43 in favour of launching air strikes against the self proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) within the nation of Iraq, following an official request for help from the Iraqi Government. The mission would be codenamed Operation Shader.

Armed operations commenced very soon after the the vote took place, using six Panavia Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft already forward deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to provide reconnaissance for humanitarian missions. Four days later, two Tornado GR.4s opened fire on ISIL targets for the first time, striking a weapon position with a Paveway IV laser guided bomb (LGB) and a technical (an armed pickup truck) with a Brimstone missile. These six Tornado GR.4s were then supplemented by a further two aircraft, increasing the number of deployed Tornado GR.4s to eight.

Rather than giving a detailed timeline of all Royal Air Force operations against ISIL (detailed accounts can be found here), I will go through the combat equipment used so far in Operation Shader.

Panavia Tornado GR.4


A Tornado GR.4 returns to RAF Akrotiri following a combat operation over Iraq | Crown Copyright

Although it first flew over forty years ago, the Tornado remains the Royal Air Force’s primary air to ground fighter. Before Operation Shader, the type was gradually being withdrawn in favour of the newer Eurofighter Typhoon, but as the Typhoon does not currently carry all of the RAF’s air to ground weapons, the Tornado has been given a short reprieve and is now due to retire in 2019.

The Tornado has a long history in supporting British military operations, both in its GR (ground attack/reconnaissance) variant and its F (fighter) variant (retired in 2011). Prior to the current fight against ISIL, RAF Tornados had been deployed in support of previous operations in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Libya.

One of the oft stated points for extending Operation Shader to Syria was the Tornado’s Brimstone missile. Brimstone was originally developed as an anti-armor weapon, but its high degree of accuracy and low fragmentation warhead makes it an ideal weapon to use against targets in high risk scenarios, such as within a city, minimising civilian casualties. This of course is not the Tornado’s only trick – many sorties during Operation Shader have seen Tornados drop Paveway IV laser guided bombs. The Paveway IV is the weapon of choice for larger targets, further away from civilian populations. A prominent deployment of these bombs were a series of strikes against an ISIL controlled oil facility in Syria, notable for being launched just hours after Parliament voted in favour of extending Operation Shader to Syria on the 2nd December 2015.

The Tornado also provides a capable reconnaissance platform, and can carry the RAPTOR electro-optical/infrared imaging pod as well as the LITENING reconnaissance and targeting pod.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

Reaper UAV

An RAF MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada | Crown Copyright

Arguably the most controversial of all of the RAF’s current equipment, the MQ-9 Reaper is a remotely piloted aerial system (RPAS), often referred to as a drone – misleading, as they are not autonomous, only remotely piloted.

The RAF operates 10 Reapers, usually remote controlled from RAF Waddington.

The large camera mounted on the underside of the fuselage is a Raytheon AN/AAS-52 multi spectral targeting sensor, which offers colour and infrared imagery as well as a laser rangefinder for target designation.

In addition to the reconnaissance capability offered by the systems listed above, Reapers can be fitted with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bombs and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4


Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 ZK330 landing at RNAS Culdrose, June 2015 | © Kyle Greet 2016

The Eurofighter Typhoon is the RAF’s newest active fighter aircraft.

Operation Shader is the RAF Typhoon fleet’s second combat deployment, having also taken part in Operation Ellamy over Libya in an air to air role policing the No Fly Zone (NFZ), and a limited air to ground role employing the Paveway II.

Since 2007, four Typhoons have provided the UK’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force, with two aircraft stationed at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, and another two at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland (as well as RAF Northolt during the 2012 Olympics). The QRA force has risen to prominence in the last few years following the resurgence of long range Russian strategic bomber operations, which often stray into the UK’s FIR leading to QRA being scrambled to intercept.

Typhoons first joined Operation Shader in December 2015 following the vote to extend airstrikes against ISIL to Syria. Although not yet capable of using the Brimstone missile, Typhoon FGR.4s have launched a number of strikes against ISIL targets using Paveway IV laser guided bombs, and like the Tornado GR.4, Typhoon FGR.4s can employ LITENING reconnaissance and targeting pods.


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