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UK’s airstrike rules of engagement reviewed

Operation ‘SHADER’ is the operational code name given to UK military operations undertaken as part of the US-led global coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS) or ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL), aka ISIS. Operations began in Iraq on 26 September 2014 in response to a formal request from the Iraqi government. The intervention extended to Syria in October 2014, with the Royal Air Force mandated to conduct surveillance flights over the country. On 2 December 2015, the British Government approved RAF airstrikes against IS in Syria.[1] Since then, the Royal Air Force has been heavily involved in terms of the number of RAF and other personnel engaged, the number of sorties and airstrikes carried out, and IS fighters and support operatives killed.  Involving the cooperation of Royal Navy, the British Army and UK special forces, Operation Shader has been questioned in some circles for having caused multiple civilian deaths and injuries, in addition to the destruction of crucial non-military infrastructure.

The UK is one of 68 nations in a Global Coalition to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria. The military element of this is known as Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), or simply Operation Inherent Resolve.[2] The UK Government maintains that “at present, approximately 850 UK personnel are supporting Operation Shader in Iraq and Syria, conducting airstrikes in support of local forces on the ground and providing intelligence and surveillance to Coalition operations. With the UK’s training contingent in Iraq (currently 500 personnel), the UK’s total footprint across the region in support of this operation is approximately 1,350 personnel. Those personnel on the ground are not combat troops.”[3] The UK has been the second largest contributor to air operations in Iraq and Syria, behind the United States. A freedom of information request by Drone Wars UK revealed that, as of February 2018, the total cost of Operation Shader had reached £1.75 billion.[4]


Three main types of airframes have been utilised in combat operations against IS targets in Iraq and Syria since December 2015: (a) Reaper MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle; (b) Tornado GR4; (c) Typhoon FGR. Mark 4.

The Typhoon is compatible with a Global Positioning System/laser-guided Enhanced Paveway II and Paveway IV bombs, commonly used in conjunction with a Litening III targeting pod.[5]  The Reaper is capable of carrying two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The Tornado GR4 usually employs a variety of Paveway bombs, or Storm Shadow cruise missiles, in addition to the Dual-Mode Seeker Brimstone missile.[6]

In 2018, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) made a request to the UK Ministry of Defence for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) asking for the number of (a) Reaper MQ-9; (b) Tornado GR4; (c) Typhoon sorties and associated weapons (type and number) released by airframe type for each calendar month between and including January 2017 and July 2018 inclusive.[7] A total number of 4,692 sorties were made by all 3 airframes over Iraq and Syria over the 19 months in question. While the number of sorties made by Tornados during the period was remarkably similar in Iraq and Syria (861 and 876 respectively), Typhoons and Reapers were noticeably more active in Syria, flying 1652 and 933 sorties respectively, compared to 186 and 184 in Iraq. However, more weapons were released over Iraq than in Syria during the same period, though, in the case of Iraq, most weapons were released during the 2017 campaign.

In terms of missiles launched or bombs dropped by the RAF, 745 were released over Iraq during January 2017 to July 2018. The figure for Syria for the same period was 590. Paveway IV bombs were the most used weapon over Iraq, with Typhoons dropping 262, and Tornados dropping 312. AGM-114 releases from Reaper platforms were relatively low at 44, with 31 one of these dropped in January 2017 alone. In contrast, Reapers released 171 AGM-114s in Syria, with most being released between September 2017 and March 2018 (a 7-month period that overlapped with the ‘fall of Raqqa’[8]). Paveway IV bombs again represented the munition most frequently released by Tornado and Typhoon jets (103 and 272 respectively).

As the Islamic State group has been cleared from more of the territory that it once held, as of January 2019 UK Royal Air Force Eurofighter (RAF) Typhoons on operations are flying fewer planned attack missions, and instead are increasingly being used for ‘armed overwatch’, with a greater emphasis on non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and tactical reconnaissance. The aircraft still carry four 500 lb Raytheon Paveway IV bombs and these are employed whenever Islamic State forces are located and identified. However, as IS continues the transition into an insurgency, Typhoon pilots are regularly using the aircraft’s Litening III laser designator pods as an ISR sensor. Dedicated ISR platforms compile an intelligence picture over time to gain an understanding of the normal pattern of life and the Typhoons are used to build on that picture, trying to find specific intelligence on individuals, groups, and networks.[9]

The Litening pod incorporates the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER), enabling forces on the ground to see the same picture as the pilot and share the same situational awareness. When the operation turns to clearing Islamic State fighters from their remaining stronghold – a few villages in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (known as the MERV) – air strikes are expected to become more frequent again. By then the Typhoon will be fielding a new weapon in the form of the MBDA Brimstone 2, currently carried by the Tornado GR4. The Tornado (originally scheduled to withdraw from Operation ‘Shader’ in February 2018, prior to leaving RAF service in March), and the Tornado’s weapons capabilities (including the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile) are being migrated to the Typhoon under the three-phase Centurion programme, with all expected to be operational on Typhoon by the end of 2019.[10]

The UK Government maintains that these precision weapons are carefully chosen during an operational planning process that takes into account the risk of civilian injury and informs decision-making on the most appropriate weaponry for each combat mission: “The UK’s Brimstone missiles – which even the US don’t possess – are effective on both static and moving targets and offer pin-point accuracy. Brimstone has a small warhead, which has a minimal effect outside of the target area to ensure low collateral damage and a small blast radius.”[11]

According to data released to Action on Armed Violence, of an estimated 4,315 enemies killed and injured between September 2014 and January 2019 by the RAF in Iraq and Syria, according to the British Ministry of Defence (MOD), 37% were by Typhoons, 31% by Tornados and 32% by Reapers.[12]


Since 2015 the UK has used the Coalition’s method of calculating airstrikes. The Coalition defines a strike as “a target and time-based count, not aircraft or weapon-based. Regardless of the number of aircraft or weapons, a strike is an attack against a target within a timeframe consistent with a single engagement. By example, two Tornado aircraft drop two bombs each on the same target. This counts as one strike using the Coalition definition. While the two methods [UK and Coalition] normally give similar results for pre-planned targets, they often give different results for dynamic targets.[13]

The Royal Air Force (RAF), as part of a wider coalition led by the United States, has dropped more than 3,400 bombs and missiles in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of 2016, and yet has consistently claimed on numerous occasions that there is no evidence that UK airstrikes have killed civilians. A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson stated in October 2017 that “we have no evidence that RAF strikes have caused civilian casualties. We recognize the challenge faced by coalition pilots in close urban fighting against a ruthless terrorist enemy that uses civilians as human shields.”[14]

Announced in a written statement to parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence on 2 May 2018, the number of civilians judged to have been killed by UK airstrikes over Syria and Iraq was stated as one:

‘During a strike to engage three Daesh fighters, a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed. We reached this conclusion after undertaking routine and detailed post-strike analysis of all available evidence. We have not seen evidence that our strikes have resulted in further civilian casualties. There are limits on any further details that can be provided given ongoing operations   and consequent national security issues.’[15]

Given the number of munitions released by the RAF over Iraq and Syria since 2015, to claim that there is no evidence to suggest that UK airstrikes have killed any more than one civilian, as the Ministry of Defence has invariably claimed, is somewhat problematic.

According to FOI data released to Action on Armed Violence, the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) claim that RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria have killed and injured an estimated 4,315 enemies between September 2014 and January 2019.[16] Of the 4,315 combatants targeted, 93% were estimated reported killed (totalling some 4,013). Just 302 – or 7% – survived the RAF’s airstrikes with injuries. In total, 75% of those estimated killed and injured were caused by airstrikes in Iraq; 25% were in Syria. In Syria, the MOD estimates that RAF airstrikes have killed 1,019 enemies and wounded 67. In Iraq, this increases to 2,994 enemies killed and 235 wounded.[17]

However, with just one civilian casualty claimed in these airstrikes, civilians would make up just 0.02% of all those harmed from RAF bombing runs – an assertion that many find unrealistic.

The MOD notes in the Freedom of Information (FOI) released information that: ‘Information concerning enemy killed and wounded in action is based on the best available post-strike analysis. This information, however, is only given as an estimate as the UK is not in a position to visit airstrike sites inside Syria and verify the facts.’[18]

The use of modern explosive weapons, even those that are frequently regarded as being ‘precise’ such as Brimstone, may have explosive effects that are far from being confined to the perceived detonation point. As described in ‘Areas of harm: understanding explosive weapons with wide areas effects’, co-written by Article 36 and PAX, “There is broad agreement that wide area effects from explosive weapons can result from three characteristics, either individually or in combination: a substantial blast and fragmentation radius resulting from a large explosive content; inaccuracy of delivery, meaning that the weapon may land anywhere in a wide area; use of multiple warheads or multiple firings, sometimes designed to spread, affecting a wide area. These effects are cumulative, with blast and fragmentation effects always present and with inaccuracy of delivery and the use of multiple warheads, where applicable, extending those effects across a wider area.”[19]

Since 2014, the non-governmental organisation Airwars estimates that the Coalition is likely responsible for between 7,465 to 11,837 civilian deaths overall in the war against ISIS,[20] out of more than 28,000 civilian fatalities alleged locally.[21] By 2018, of the reported deaths, more than half took place either in the vicinity of Mosul or of Raqqa.”[22] The civilian casualty figures produced by US Central Command (CENTCOM) on behalf of the ‘Coalition’ – Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) – are significantly lower.

At a Chatham House meeting held by AOAV in December 2018, the claim that the RAF had a virtually 100% success rate in terms of avoiding civilian casualties was seen sceptically, especially in light of so many organisations reporting upon incidents that countered this claim.[23] In that meeting, it was said the UK had conducted 5.6% of the total number of airstrikes over Iraq and Syria, yet claimed to have caused just 0.09% of civilian casualties admitted to by the US-led coalition.

With 1,000 targets hit by the RAF over Mosul and Raqqa, it is highly likely that the civilian harm from RAF airstrikes is under-recorded.  In Mosul 75% of strikes were on buildings. In Raqqa, this number was 63%.[24] Furthermore, the vast majority of RAF airstrikes were in ‘dynamic’ situations, meaning that they were responsive to events occurring on the ground, a reality that many accept raises the risks of the operation harming civilians.

AOAV recorded casualties – fatalities and injuries combined – for Raqqa city and Raqqa Governorate, and Mosul and its surrounding Governorate (Nineveh), for 2016 and 2017. The figures – broken down by the weapons type used (launch method) and casualty type (civilian or armed actor) – show a drastic increase in civilian casualties from 2016 to 2017. This was primarily caused by an increase in airstrikes undertaken by Coalition forces in and around both cities.

AOAV recorded seven air-launched ‘events’ on Raqqa city in 2016, resulting in 300 civilian casualties. In 2017, AOAV recorded a total of 195 air-launched events in Raqqa city, resulting in 2,200 civilian casualties. Raqqa Governorate witnessed 22 air-launched events in 2016, resulting in 497 civilian casualties. In 2017, the number of air-launched events jumped to 339 and resulted in 3,481 civilian casualties.

Mosul and Nineveh Governorate saw a similar increase in airstrikes and civilian casualties in 2017. In 2016, Mosul city was recorded as being a target for air-launched weapons on 35 occasions, resulting in an almost equal number of civilian and armed-actor casualties – 469 and 396, respectively. However, in 2017, as the number of casualty-causing air-launched attacks increased to 145, the number and percentage of civilian casualties increased alarmingly, with 2,944 civilian casualties compared to 331 armed-actor casualties.

This pattern is also discernible for the Governorate as a whole: AOAV recorded Nineveh being targeted 62 times by air-launched weapons in 2016, resulting in almost twice as many armed-actor casualties as civilians – 980 and 511, respectively. In 2017, this backdrop again changed drastically: Nineveh Governorate witnessed 173 air-launched attacks that resulted in 3,103 civilian casualties and 649 armed-actor casualties.[25] This data also shows that when airstrikes were launched outside the city it was less likely that civilians would be amongst the casualties. When airstrikes were launched outside of Mosul city in 2017, 159 civilian casualties were recorded killed or injured compared to 318 armed-actors. Civilians accounted for 33% of reported casualties, whilst in the city they accounted for 90%. In 2016, the disparity had been even greater, with just 42 civilian casualties recorded in Nineveh Governorate, excluding Mosul city, compared to 584 armed-actors, civilians accounted for 7% of the casualties recorded outside of the city.

The intensity of the campaigns to re-take Mosul and Raqqa in the months leading up to ‘liberation’ in July 2017 and October 2017, is reflected in the number of civilian casualties recorded by AOAV by month (due to all explosive weapons). In Raqqa city in July, August, September and October 2017, there were 457, 695, 280 and 289 civilian casualties, respectively. In November 2017, the number of civilian casualties dropped to 25, and in December 2017 there were 40. A similar pattern is discernible for Mosul city: In April, May, June and July (2017), AOAV recorded 904, 316, 392 and 56 civilian casualties, respectively, due to air-launched, ground-launched or Improvised Explosive Device (IED)-related attacks. The number of civilian casualties fell to one for August and three for September.


In planning airstrikes, assessing the effects of actions against enemies has, in recent years, been tempered with a need to avoid civilian casualties were possible. Highlighted in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I (to the 1949 Geneva Conventions) there are restrictions on a mode of attack and target which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life. However, this is does not preclude military attacks, but seeks to avoid, “excessive loss of life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects”.[26] The use of the word excessive widens the interpretation of Article 51(5)(b), and leaves the door open for militaries to define their own principles of proportionality. These in turn influence the nature of any military’s battle damage assessment.[27]

Then RAF Air Chief Marshall Greg Bagwell commented on UK battle damage assessment processes, during an interview with Drone Wars UK, raising questions about the MoD’s frequently iterated claim that there is no evidence to suggest that [at the time of the interview] UK airstrikes had killed civilians[28]:

“I will defend the fact that the MoD has put 100% effort into trying to avoid civilian casualties. I just think it’s wrong to let people think that no-one has been killed, but we do try our utmost… I’m sure there will be all sorts of studies into this, to try to uncover the truth of it.  But you can’t see through rubble. We do put a lot of effort into battle damage assessment. Partly of course because we want to know if we have achieved the aim of the strike, but also because we want to be able to refute any propaganda claims by the enemy.”

As IS has developed into an insurgency, merging into the civil population, engagement opportunities have become ever more limited. The Royal Air Force maintains it is trying to be as discriminate as possible, employing robust targeting processes to ensure an absolute minimum of collateral damage. Enemy forces are often found and tracked but may never be away from the civilian population, and there may be no chance to engage them, meaning that aircraft frequently return to Akrotiri with their weapons.[29]

Even with the most accurate weapon, there is still no guarantee that a ‘pinpoint’ strike (however one might wish to define that) will not have a wide area effect based upon the characteristics of the strike zone, nor will it guarantee that that strike zone is free of civilians. This, however, is not to say that efforts are not made to avoid civilian casualties. As the Rt Hon. Mark Lancaster, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, stated in a submission written on behalf of Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Ministry of Defence (MoD) to a 2018 inquiry carried out by the APPG on Explosive Threats:

“The UK will always seek to avoid and, in any event minimise, the risk of civilian casualties. We conduct detailed assessments after each strike and also review information that we receive from external organisations such as Airwars. It remains the case that we have not seen evidence that we have been responsible for the death of civilians in the current operation in Iraq and Syria. However, that is not the same as saying that we have not done so, or never will do. Without large numbers of UK forces on the ground it is not possible to be certain that UK air strikes have not caused civilian fatalities. However, we are extremely rigorous in our overview of individual strikes, using all the information available to us.”[30]

This has been countered by a 2018 report produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, which, viewing current review systems as not being fit for purpose, commented that “The Government maintains that only one confirmed civilian casualty has been recorded as a result of its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and has acknowledged civilian casualties caused by only one strike in Afghanistan. This raises serious questions about the process of investigating, and mechanism of identifying, civilian casualties. UK procedures for assessing civilian casualties in Afghanistan and in Iraq-Syria have not been disclosed.”[31]

Airwars have also questioned that ‘rigorous overview’ and the confidence that the UK (and others) invest in it:

“The Coalition’s claims of precision have been called into question by non-combatant death tolls in the thousands between Raqqa and Mosul – the latter the scene of the most intense urban fighting since World War II, according to US officials. Civilian casualties from US-led strikes appear to be at their highest levels since Vietnam, and yet there is little or no official effort made to track the overall death toll from urban fighting. The Coalition’s civilian casualty assessment and investigation processes have also shown significant procedural weaknesses.”[32]

Regarding the use of airstrikes, the issues of institutional accountability and transparency are also crucial. While the MoD, and other government representatives, frequently maintain that, for example, the RAF have effective targeting processes and strict strike protocols, no information regarding these is ever evidenced in the public domain. Certain data and protocols will have to be maintained for security reasons – this is to be expected – but a degree of transparency would allow the MoD and RAF to show a degree of accountability. In a letter written to AOAV in February 2018 on behalf of the Defence Secretary, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and the Chief of the Air Staff, the Ministry of Defence’s Operations Directorate stated that,

“…as I am sure you will appreciate, we need to balance what we release against the possibility that such information can be exploited by our adversaries to increase the risk to our forces or to put civilians in greater danger. It is for that reason that we have a longstanding policy not to release our Rules of Engagement or Targeting Policy.”[33]

The letter continues, describing the RAF’s systems for detecting if civilians are present before an attack, or if casualties may be identified after the attack has taken place:

“The UK conducts assessments before each strike to assess what risk, if any, there are to civilians or civilian infrastructure. Following each strike, we conduct further assessments to judge if the target was struck correctly and to assure, as far as is possible, that there were no unintended consequences resulting from our military action”.[34]

In contrast to this statement, Airwars views in a very different light efforts to carry such assessments: “Ahead of large-scale urban operations, the Coalition generally ‘shaped’ the battlefield with strikes which sometimes reportedly caused civilians harm. Military investigations, understandably, could only be conducted remotely at the time. However, once an area was captured, the Coalition had access to locations where allegations of civilian harm had been lodged. Yet even in these scenarios, the Coalition appears to have made almost no effort to follow up on the ground once control had been taken of an area where civilian deaths were reported.”[35]

In contrast, Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, U.S. Central Command, has stated that out of the 270 allegations obtained from Airwars that have been assessed thus far, 258 have been assessed as non-credible. Of those, 119 were assessed as non-credible because the Coalition did not conduct a strike near the area of    the allegation:

“60 of those allegations were so vague in regard to the date and location of the                alleged casualties that they were impossible to assess. The remaining 79 allegations were found to be non-credible due to lack of sufficient evidence or are still being assessed. To date, based on data collected between August 2014 and July 2017, the Coalition conducted a total of 24,160 strikes    that included 51,038 separate engagements. The percentage of all Coalition engagements that resulted in a report of possible civilian casualties is 2.29 percent. The percentage of engagements that resulted in a credible report of        civilian casualties was 0.32 percent.”[36]

On the UK side, The Ministry of Defence maintains that after an incident in which a civilian has been or appears to have been killed by UK forces a full investigation is undertaken. If required, a special investigations team is deployed to conduct a quick and thorough assessment of the situation. These reports are not routinely published for reasons of operational security.[37] However, the Ministry of Defence asserted from the outset of operations in Syria that, “the RAF uses precise, low collateral weapons systems supported by thorough intelligence,” and that civilian deaths are avoided because of “the rigorous targeting protocols UK forces observe, founded in the principles of proportionality, military necessity, the capability of our precision weapons and, above all, the skills and experience of our military personnel. We adhere to those same principles when taking action over Syria. Our rigorous targeting protocol focuses where strikes can have the most impact to support the overall coalition effort.”[38]

A general awareness exists that harm to civilians exists well beyond the initial deaths and injuries.[39] Multiple reports have described how damage to infrastructure related to water provision and sewage processing, for example, may take years to repair.[40] Major infrastructural damage also heightens risks posed to general health and wellbeing. Explosives – including unexploded air-to-surface missiles and bombs – are frequently present post-airstrike. The collective fear, anxiety and uncertainty caused by bombing, or the threat of bombing, has extensive repercussions for a functioning economy, even in the most basic sense. Post-strike assessments are unlikely to grasp the scale of the challenge facing communities in the aftermath of an airstrike in and around crucial civilian infrastructure.

On 21 September 2016, the Defence Committee published its Second Report of Session 2016–17, on UK military operations in Syria and Iraq (HC 106). Within this, the Committee highlighted that, ‘if the Government is to continue to justify and validate its policy of airstrikes in Syria, it should provide the necessary detail on what is being targeted. We therefore recommend that the MoD put this information, as far as possible, into the public domain so that realistic judgements on the effectiveness of the UK’s air operations in Syria can be made.” The Government’s response was received on 1 February 2017:

“The RAF plays a significant role as part of the Coalition air campaign in Iraq and Syria. To date the RAF has undertaken over 1,100 strikes targeting Daesh infrastructure, Daesh fighter positions, Daesh vehicles (including vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IEDs)), weapons emplacements, weapons caches, and IEDs. A full breakdown of the RAF strikes was provided to the Committee. In addition, since the start of Operation SHADER, the MOD has consistently published regular updates, via the website, detailing each and every individual target struck by RAF assets. This represents the release of an unprecedented level of detail; it goes far beyond what MOD has released in relation to previous military operations. It is worth noting that commentators have observed that these statements maintain the highest level of transparency amongst coalition partners.”[41]

The RAF’s transparency compared to other air forces is advanced, and the UK Ministry of Defence for example, must release information relating to Reaper, Typhoon and Tornado sorties, including missiles and bombs released by airframe type when requested under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). However, transparency pertaining to operational procedures may always be limited by security concerns and sensitivities, and the challenge of accurately ascertaining long-term damage to civilian lives remains.


The practical challenges of deciding to authorise and activate airstrikes are paralleled by moral and ethical dimensions. IHL does not necessarily provide complete restriction over the use of force over populated areas, and the concept of legality is an open-ended question.

IHL principles of distinction means that military objectives must be the obvious target and foreseeable harm must be protected against (the ‘precautionary principle’). This is made most clear through the Protocol(s) Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (8 June 1977). There is an ever-present friction between IHL and the protection of civilians, and militaries’ comprehension of the notion of proportionality.

Given the political and humanitarian sensitivity of hitting enemy targets in Syria and Iraq close to civilian infrastructure of cultural and practical importance – such as Mosques, hospitals, electricity generation infrastructure – the RAF is said to utilise its assets in a ‘legally aware’ manner, something claimed frequently to the detriment of its war-fighting ability. In conversations that AOAV has had with former senior RAF commanders, some have spoken of pilots – particularly drone pilots (operators) – as heavily invested in the area of their operations. Many drone operators were so immersed in these areas that they came adept at “predicting and anticipating everyday movements of civilians within villages and towns”.[42]

However, as noted in The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners, “modern UK drone operations take place in complex environments, with differing levels of collaboration and assistance in drone operations, and with multiple partners that may not all adhere to the same rules of engagement…the Government should now take the opportunity to ensure that its processes upholding its obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law are robust, and set the stage for common protocols and standards at the highest global levels.”[43]

The definition of ‘precision’ remains disputed in many quarters, regardless of the quality of the weapon system, ‘successful’ strikes – both in terms of hitting the target in the desired way and avoiding civilian casualties (or damage to civilian infrastructure) is dependent on an accurate collateral damage estimate, the accuracy of data pertaining to the target, the mapping of terrain by radar and the movement of civilians (or opponents) during the attack phase. When attacks are conducted during ‘dynamic’ situations, or during high intensity actions, the challenge becomes significantly greater.[44]

It has also been argued that the ‘farther away’ from the battlefield the RAF is, the greater the risk posed to civilians on the ground – intelligence takes on an essential role, but with that reliance came great risks: when intelligence is patchy, an airstrike can go awry. As recent interventions in Iraq and Syria had shown, non-state actors – ‘insurgents’ – have learned to embed troops and equipment within populated areas. The use of explosive weapons in such situations can be devastating. Former UK Secretary of State for Defence Sir Michael Fallon admitted in 2017 that, “In carrying out strikes, we do everything we can to minimise the risk of civilian casualties through rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of the RAF crews. Nonetheless, Daesh’s ruthless and inhuman behaviour, including the deliberate use of human shields, means we must accept that the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present, particularly in the complex and congested urban environment within which we operate.”[45]

There will always be friction between the need to intervene and the need to avoid civilian casualties. As Stephen J. Townsend has commented:

“As we saw in Mosul, a prolonged battle in dense urban terrain is devastating for ground forces and civilians alike. This is something only the Islamic State wants to see. Although a commander’s imperative is to accomplish the mission and protect his own troops, he constantly and conscientiously manages the pace and intensity of operations, balancing the need to accomplish the mission with the risk to his own forces and the protection of non-combatants and infrastructure. The only way to save the people of Raqqa is to liberate them from the Islamic State. The Coalition will continue to take great care in our targeting to protect civilians from harm but we must maintain our course. We must maintain the initiative and we must liberate the people of Iraq and Syria from this real and mortal danger.”[46]


[1] See, Parliament, ‘MPs approve motion on ISIL in Syria’, 02 December 2015,

[2] See

[3] Claire Mills, ‘ISIS/Daesh: what now for the military campaign in Iraq and Syria?’ 10 July 2018, House of Commons, CBP8248,

[4] Chris Cole, ‘Cost of UK air and drone strikes in Iraq and Syria reach £1.75 billion’, Drone Wars UK, 26 February 2018,

[5] See


[7] The results of the FOI may be requested from AOAV

[8] Robin Wright, ‘The Ignominious End of the ISIS Caliphate’, The New Yorker, 17 October 2017,

[9] Arabian Aerospace Online News Service, ‘”Daesh as an organisation, is probably the most despicable group I’ve seen.”’, 17 December 2018,

[10] Simon Walker, ‘Blog: Eurofighter Typhoon enhancement programme: our crucial role’ 19 January 2018,

[11] Ministry of Defence, ‘Preventing civilian casualties and coordinating strike action – what you need to know:’, 03 December 2015,

[12] AOAV, ‘RAF claims 4,315 enemies killed and injured in Syria and Iraq, with just one civilian casualty’, 07 march 2019,

[13] See,

[14] Jamie Merrill, ‘EXCLUSIVE: Britain drops 3,400 bombs in Syria and Iraq – and says no civilians killed’, Middle East Eye, 26 October 2017,

[15] Gavin Williamson, ‘Counter-Daesh Operations:Written statement – HCWS665’, 02 may 2018,

[16] AOAV, ‘RAF claims 4,315 enemies killed and injured in Syria and Iraq, with just one civilian casualty’, 07 march 2019,

[17] AOAV, ‘RAF claims 4,315 enemies killed and injured in Syria and Iraq, with just one civilian casualty’, 07 march 2019,

[18] AOAV, ‘RAF claims 4,315 enemies killed and injured in Syria and Iraq, with just one civilian casualty’, 07 march 2019,

[19] PAX for Peace and Article 36, ‘Areas of harm’, 03 October 2016,

[20] As of February 19th 2019

[21] Chris Woods, Airwars, APPG on Drones meeting, ‘Airstrike and Civilian Casualties’, House of Commons, UK, 26th February 2019.

[22] Airwars, ‘Death in the city: High levels of civilian harm in modern urban warfare resulting from significant explosive weapons use’ May 2018,

[23] AOAV and Chatham House, ‘THE RAF AND AIRSTRIKES:


[24] AOAV, ‘RAF claims 4,315 enemies killed and injured in Syria and Iraq, with just one civilian casualty’, 07 march 2019,

[25] Figures are available from AOAV upon request

[26] See,

[27] For further information regarding battle damage assessment, see

[28] See

[29] Financial Times, ‘Combat capability of RAF Cyprus base to be bolstered ahead of vote’, 02 December 2015,

[30] All Party Parliamentary Group on Explosive Threats, ‘Reduce Explosive Violence, Increase Victim Empowerment’, June 2018,

[31] All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, ’The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners’, July 2018,

[32] Airwars, ‘Death in the city: High levels of civilian harm in modern urban warfare resulting from significant explosive weapons use’ May 2018,

[33] Letter written to AOAV on behalf of the Defence Secretary, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and the Chief of the Air Staff, the Ministry of Defence’s Operations Directorate, 23 February 2018

[34] Ibid.

[35] Airwars, ‘Death in the city: High levels of civilian harm in modern urban warfare resulting from significant explosive weapons use’ May 2018,

[36] Stephen J. Townsend, ‘Reports of Civilian Casualties in the War Against ISIS Are Vastly Inflated’, Foreign Policy, 15 September 2017,

[37] Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘Briefing Paper: Overview of military drones used by the UK armed forces’, House of Commons, 08 October 2015, #06493,

[38] Ministry of Defence, ‘Preventing civilian casualties and coordinating strike action – what you need to know:’, 03 December 2015,

[39] Christina Wille, ‘The Implications of the Reverberating Effects of Explosive Weapons Use in

Populated Areas for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals’, UNIDIR, April 2016,

[40] Christina Wille and John Borrie, ‘Understanding the Reverberating Effects of Explosive Weapons: A Way Forward’, UNIDIR, 2016,

[41] House of Commons Defence Committee, ‘UK military operations in Syria and Iraq: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report’, 28 February 2017,

[42] AOAV interview with former RAF commander, 2018.

[43] All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, ’The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners’, July 2018,

[44] Airwars, ‘Credibility Gap United Kingdom civilian harm assessments for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa’, September 2018,

[45] Michael Fallon, ‘Michael Fallon: Three years into our campaign against Daesh, the black flags are being torn down’, Conservative Home, 28 September 2017,

[46] Stephen J. Townsend, ‘Reports of Civilian Casualties in the War Against ISIS Are Vastly Inflated’, Foreign Policy, 15 September 2017,