"Daesh as an organisation, is probably the most despicable group I've seen."

Group Captain Chas Dickens, OBE, commander of the UK Royal Air Force’s No903 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW), gives a first-hand account of the UK’s combat air operations over Syria and Iraq to Jon Lake.

The UK is one of 77 nations contributing to the on-going multi-national military intervention against Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Its contribution to the mission is known as Operation Shader.
Dickens was keen to point out: “The Royal Air Force is the second largest contributor to this campaign and our attack, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, are in constant use.”
Coalition air operations in Iraq are undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi Government and they support operations by the Iraqi Army, while in Syria the coalition is working with Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground.
“It’s important that we understand that some of the pace of this campaign is set by their capabilities and their ability to move forward,” Dickens explained.
He and his officers and men have enthusiastically embraced the task of defeating Daesh and are motivated by a sincere desire to make people’s lives better in Syria and Iraq.
“If you think about the people on the ground in Iraq and Syria and the freedoms that they used to enjoy, when Daesh came into those villages and cities they changed their way of life. If you didn’t obey their directions then you were killed, or sometimes tortured,” Dickens explained.
“If you think about Daesh as an organisation, they are probably the most despicable group I have ever seen. I have been involved in operations in Iraq previously and in Afghanistan and this group have done things to people that I have not seen in other campaigns. We’ve seen them go into villages and hang the elders as a deterrent to other people on the ground. We’ve seen people towed behind motorcycles, who have disobeyed Daesh, and they are towed around until they are dead. Captured airmen have been burnt in cages. These are a particularly nasty bunch of people.”
By defeating Daesh on the ground in Syria and Iraq, the coalition is freeing thousands of people from the group’s malign rule, but Dickens believes that the air campaign is also of crucial importance in protecting the public in Europe and the United Kingdom.
Dickens said taking away the territory that allowed Daesh to present itself as a caliphate or an ‘Islamic state’, and disrupting the narrative of success and victory that Daesh has tried to propagate, will help to prevent the organisation from inspiring and exporting terrorism around the world.
He explained that the nature of the air campaign, which he estimates as having killed some 50,000 Daesh fighters, is changing.
Now that Daesh has been cleared from its strongholds in Iraq, there has been a growing emphasis on attacking its now tiny toehold in Syria. Daesh has lost 98% of the territory it held at the beginning of the campaign, and has been squeezed and degraded into the Mid Euphrates River Valley (MERV) in Syria.
The ‘physical caliphate’ – where the organisation holds ground and controls a population – is now very small and collapsing, although Daesh is now attempting to conduct an insurgency across the region, carrying out ‘terrorist type acts’, to demonstrate its continuing capability.
Although the Typhoons and Tornados are now usually tasked to operate over Syria, they can still rapidly reposition to attack Daesh fighters wherever they come together, whether in Syria or Iraq. This can sometimes lead to extended sortie lengths of nine hours or more.
As well as undergoing a shift in geographical focus, the tempo of the air campaign has also been reducing as Daesh has been cleared from more and more areas.
The number of weapons being dropped (the ‘kinetic activity’) has reduced – particularly compared to the intense fighting around Mosul.
The Typhoon detachment commander said: “This is what winning looks like. The last time the squadron came out it was at the height of the heavy fighting in Mosul and Raqqa. Every time you took off there was a very good chance that you were going to drop, and you might expend multiple weapons in a tour. Now, however, it might be only once or twice in a tour that you might get to a kinetic event.”
Dickens explained: “The operation is going in phases, so when we’re clearing Daesh out of an area we will use more weapons. And so, when we cleared Dashisha, we used more weapons, and when we clear Daesh out of MERV we will use more weapons. But when we’re dealing with insurgents the use of weapons will be less frequent. We will need to identify where they are and wait until they mass and then we’ll look to kill them there and then.”
But, while the Typhoons are dropping fewer bombs, they continue to fulfil a vital role, clearing the last elements of Daesh out of Syria, providing security and overwatch in Iraq, and also undertaking limited strikes in Iraq when required.
No903 EAW reports to No83 Expeditionary Air Group at Al Udeid in Qatar, and then to the permanent joint headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood in the UK.
The wing is based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and currently comprises a detachment of six Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.Mk 4s, eight Tornado GR.Mk 4s, and a number of air mobility, air-to-air refuelling (AAR) and ISR assets, including two C-130J Hercules C.Mk 4s, an Airbus Voyager KC.Mk 3 tanker, and a Bombardier Sentinel R.Mk 1.
UK-based Typhoon and Tornado squadrons take it in turns to man the deployments, for about three months at a time.
The RAF first deployed the Eurofighter Typhoon on Operation Shader in December 2015, augmenting an existing Tornado deployment.
Since then, the wing has typically launched a pair of Typhoons and a pair of Tornados in the morning, and another two pairs in the afternoon, six days per week, though the UK assets can move according to the requirements of the air tasking order compiled and issued by the multi-national combined air operations centre (CAOC) at Al Udeid, which plans and commands the air campaign.
Exceptionally, if unserviceability dictates, the RAF can launch a mixed Typhoon/Tornado pair.
The primary air-to-surface weapon on Shader is the 500lb Paveway IV dual-mode bomb. This is carried by both the Typhoon and the Tornado.
The Paveway IV can use laser or GPS guidance and offers selectable fusing, and variable impact angles and attack directions.
The GPS, or coordinate-seeking mode, is used where possible, with GPS coordinates for targeting sometimes generated using the Litening pod. The advantage of this weapon mode is that it is wind-corrected, making a direct hit routine.
Against moving targets – where a target’s coordinates are changing all the time – or in the face of GPS jamming, or when less accurate coordinates are available, laser-guidance is used.
The ability to engage a high-value target in a vehicle, in the open, well away from the civil population, is highly prized. And, although the Paveway IV is not optimised for hitting moving targets, the capability has been demonstrated on Shader many times.
The Typhoons typically take off with about 6.3 tonnes of fuel (4.9 tonnes of internal fuel plus two underwing tanks), as well as four Paveway IV dual-mode bombs, two advanced short-range air-to-air missiles (ASRAAMs) and a single AIM-120C-5 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM).
A Litening 3 laser designation pod (LDP) is carried on the centreline pylon, giving a take-off weight of about 21-23 tonnes.
Even in this ‘Shader fit’, the Typhoons take off in dry power, as there is no need to use reheat. The aircraft burns about 50kg of fuel per minute, giving about one 80 minutes between refuelling brackets.
Missions typically last between six and eight hours, but have sometimes been extended beyond nine hours.
The Tornado can also use the MBDA Brimstone missile and the Storm Shadow cruise missile, and uses the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod.
The Tornado is being withdrawn from service in March 2019, and will finish operations on Shader in February. By then, the Typhoon will be operational with both the MBDA Brimstone and the MBDA Storm Shadow, which are being integrated under the so-called Centurion upgrade, but the RAPTOR reconnaissance capability is not migrating to the Typhoon.
It is expected that additional Typhoons will be deployed on Shader when the Tornado is withdrawn, in order to maintain the ability to launch two waves, totalling eight combat sorties, per day.
As Daesh has increasingly transitioned into an insurgency, the air campaign has focused more on finding the enemy and distinguishing insurgents from the civilian population.
A range of ISR platforms and assets are used to build up an intelligence picture over time and gain an understanding of the normal pattern of life.
Fast jets like the Typhoon and Tornado, and assets like the Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) then build on that picture, finding specific intelligence on individuals, groups and networks.
The Typhoons and Tornados have, therefore, flown a lot of armed overwatch (non-traditional ISR or tactical recce missions) using the Litening laser designator pod as an ISR sensor but also carrying four Paveway IV bombs to be used when Daesh forces are located and identified.
The Tornados usually carry a pair of Paveway IVs and a single Brimstone missile during this phase of the campaign.
As Daesh has become more of an insurgency, merging into the civil population, engagement opportunities have become more limited. The Royal Air Force is trying to be as discriminate as possible, employing a very robust targeting process 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.
Although the Typhoons do carry a single beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile and a pair of short-range missiles, these are for self-defence only, and the aircraft have no defensive counter air (DCA) tasking, unlike the US Air Force’s F-22s, for example. Typhoons have occasionally flown in the air-to-air role in theatre – for example during the coalition missile strikes against Syrian chemical warfare facilities, but they do not currently or routinely fly air-to-air or swing-role missions.
This is because Britain has limited its operations to defeating Deash (who happen to be fighting in the on-going civil war in Syria) and to participating in a one-off strike aimed at deterring the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Britain has been determined to avoid intervening in the Syrian civil war more widely.
This marks a real contrast with the US, which has supported the Syrian opposition and the Federation of Northern Syria during the civil war. The US has targeted Daesh, but it has also targeted the al-Nusra Front since 2014, and has attacked some Syrian Government military positions since 2017. Syrian Government aircraft attacking America’s allies could be engaged by US aircraft.
Dickens went on to explain that the RAF was operating to the north east of the Euphrates River, and because of the deconfliction arrangements with the Russians (which include a hotline between the Russians and the CAOC), the Syrian Air Force does not cross the river. “The last thing we want is a miscalculation,” he said. “We do not want to escalate the campaign.”
Reading between the lines, it seems as though the UK may wish to avoid any chance of being dragged into any confrontation with Russia, which supports the Syrian regime, not least since Anglo-Soviet relations are already strained. Dickens did not comment on this, saying only that: “The Americans have a different mandate to us. We’re here only as a counter-Daesh mission. There’s no requirement for DCA.”
It is, perhaps, ironic that on Operation Shader, the Typhoon is proving itself to be a very effective air-to-ground and ISR aeroplane. Dismissed in some quarters as a Cold War white elephant that was narrowly optimised for air defence, the Typhoon is not flying in the air-to-air role over Syria.
Dickens does not see an imminent end to the air campaign. “The coalition will need to stay together to be able to target Daesh whenever they come together to cause insecurity. But the important part for me is to train and partner forces on the ground so that they can provide their own security,” he said.
“Going forward, what we’d really like is for the Iraqi Air Force to be able to take care of their own security, because at that point the coalition’s job will be complete.”