19th January 2018

UK Air Component Commander Air Commodore Johnny Stringer provided a fascinating insight into Operation SHADER in Iraq and Syria when he presented the first of the Association’s 2018 fireside chats to a select group of journalists before answering their questions.

Air Commodore Stringer offered his thoughts and conclusions from the campaign which saw the Coalition halt Daesh’s advance and then set the conditions for their defeat.

His main comments included:

  • The UK air contribution was based on three elements. Firstly, breadth – from fast jets to UAVs, providing a wide range of capability from ISR to Voyager tankers and air transport. It produced a good balance which meant that we weren’t reliant on others, could contribute across the Coalition and across the Area off Operations. For example, a third of gas from Voyagers went to other Coalition forces, with the record offload on a single mission to date of 65 tonnes. Availability of Voyager was superb. Secondly, the quality of the kit and of our people. The latter served in both national and key coalition posts – including the Combined Air Operations Centre and the Joint Task Force HQ – at all levels. The conceptual thinking behind the employment of our equipment was vital, rather than focusing on the equipment itself. Finally, there was duration, with little expectation at the outset of UK air operations in August 2014 that we would be operating at the tempo and scale that we have over three+ years.
  • We have had to comply with the highest standards in avoidance of civilian casualties, which has been exceptionally challenging. Mosul (Iraq) is a city the size of Nottingham, densely populated and with numerous ‘No Strike List’ targets, in contrast to an amoral opponent who had zero respect for human life and deliberately targeted civilians. The mix of nationalities and ethnicities on the ground meant it was the most complex battlespace that I can recall.
  • Weapons were being put on the ground close to areas where the Russians were acting which meant an emphasis on sophistication and control in the air power environment. There was a great deal of consideration in how we used the assets intelligently. Of the Russian weaponry used, only ten per cent was assessed as precision weapons, unlike 100% of the c 3,600 precision weapons employed by UK aircraft.
  • The campaign was also significant for the ‘vibrancy’ of the cyber and electro-magnetic environments. For example, Daesh was using cheap, commercial drones to drop grenades and carry out surveillance. As another example, considerable use was made of IQA maps based on open source feeds, such as social media, but 80-90 per cent accurate. One of the things we need to look at in the future is how we educate and train our people to deal with a rapidly evolving information environment.
  • I think we will see similar campaigns in the future in the form of operations in the urban environment and I am pleased that the continued change in the character of conflicts has been recognised. However, we could not have had an effective air campaign without the outstanding engineering support, noting particularly the Tornado GR4 Force and its people in Cyprus.
  • Looking at the equipment used. Sentinel’s contribution was phenomenal. The intelligence, analysis and shared information has been essential to the Coalition. Reaper showed an impressive and unbroken level of service: a tribute to the platform and our crews. Also notable was their performance whether it was ISR or strike. In terms of weapons, my conclusion was that we probably needed something between Brimstone and Paveway IV, with a wider discussion on the trade off between precision, cost and availability. In terms of targeting, I don’t think that I have seen a higher degree of sophistication than we achieved in Iraq and Syria. We were not infallible but we generated a very high level of situational awareness – essential given the targeting complexities and operating areas that ranged from dense urban environments to the desert. There were three strands behind that: sophistication of the targeting enterprise: the exceptional professionalism and judgement of our crews; and unstinting analysis of what we had done, looking at the effects we had achieved. Going back to kit, Typhoon had excellent availability and we made the most of its swing role capability, while GR4 was a prime example of a cost-effective defence procurement – a platform in front line service for over 35 years and still performing admirably across both the ISR and strike domains.

19 January 2018