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UK won’t say how many RAF bombs fail to explode in Iraq and Syria – harms manufacturer’s ‘trade secrets’

The UK Government has refused to say how many of its bombs failed to explode following air strikes in Iraq and Syria because this will impact “trade secrets” and its relationship with arms producers.

Following a Freedom of Information request from Action on Armed Violence, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refused to release information regarding ‘blind munitions’ or unexploded bombs (UXB) dropped by RAF planes between September 2014 (in Iraq) and December 2015 (in Syria), up to the end of 2019.

Citing Section 43 (Commercial interests), the MoD argued that the number of dud missiles could not be listed “so as not to negatively affect the UK Government’s relationship with the manufacturers, and also protect the ‘trade secrets’ owned by the manufacturer”.

In addition, the rejection cited Section 26 (Defence), arguing that the release of such information would compromise UK military effectiveness and future operations, by revealing UK tactics and strike capabilities to adversaries.

Between August 2014 and September 2019, the RAF dropped 4,215 explosive weapons during Operation Shader, according to the organisation Drone Wars UK. Of these, 2,795 were Paveway IV bombs costing £70,000 each. Other weapons included Hellfire (887), Brimstone (384), Brimstone 2 (2), GBU-12 (88), Enhanced Paveway II (47), Storm Shadow (4) and Enhanced Paveway III (8) missiles. In total, some £312,650,000 was spent on air-dropped munitions in this campaign.

It is loosely estimated that about 5% of air-dropped bombs are ‘duds’ – meaning that 211 of these munitions possibly did not explode, leaving a pronounced hazardous threat on the field of battle, endangering the lives of civilians.

However, this 5% is a general figure. In most cases, we do not know how many dud missiles are dropped. We do know, however, that of the 606 precision-guided bombs released during the 16-month Canadian air campaign in Iraq (including a small number in Syria), 17 went off course, according to the Canadian Department of National Defence. This means that about 3% of Canada’s air strikes were dud missiles. If the same 3% of RAF dropped missiles were duds, then it is reasonable to assume that 126 explosive weapons either did not explode or missed their targets in the RAF’s five-year bombing campaign. 

These ‘dud’ missiles might now litter Iraq and Syria and could explode, harming civilians. Such a legacy of harm is in addition to the direct harm that Coalition weapons have created. In September 2018, the air-strike harm monitoring body Airwars reported that at least 29,000 munitions had been fired by coalition forces over Mosul.

Airwars presently assesses that 2,600 or more non-combatants likely died in Mosul and Raqqa as a result of such Coalition actions. During the East Mosul campaign, between October 2016 and January 2017, 32% of British actions were aimed at buildings. In the Raqqa assault of June to October 2017, the proportion of UK strikes targeting buildings rose to 63%. According to Airwars, the RAF is “seemingly incapable of detecting civilian casualties from its urban actions”.

The RAF claims to have killed only one civilian in its air campaigns over Iraq and Syra, despite asserting that it also killed 4,044 and injured 303 enemy militants. Such a claim has been widely criticised.