Christopher Lee writes from London: So, the Ministry of Defence has finally come clean about its part in drone operations in Libya. Prompted by a question in the House of Lords, a junior minister was sent along just as their Lordships were going home for the summer holidays – so there would be no further questions – and said yes, as it happens, the Royal Air Force was involved in drone operations in Libya.
Lord Astor said the following: ‘UK personnel flew armed remotely piloted air systems missions against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya in 2011 in support of the NATO humanitarian mission authorised under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.’ But Lord Astor did not say if the drones were British, only that the Americans let British officers have a go at guiding them.
In the finest tradition of the MoD to say nothing of substance it took a carefully worded question from another peer to drag this information out whereas the Pentagon announced at the end of the Libyan campaign that drones had carried out 145 strikes in Libya. We knew then that some of the drones were under the command of RAF personnel. That made it easier for the White House to tell Americans that it wasn’t getting too involved.
Anyone reading Stirring Trouble Internationally on 21 June would have known about the British drone system. They’ve been used in Afghanistan for ages. They are called, without an ounce of subtlety, Reaper.
The RAF Reaper mission has been running for nearly six years. Each year, British drones are clocking up an average of 10-11,000 hours and have so far clocked up about 35,000 air miles and getting on for 300 bombs and missiles have been fired from Reaper.
Must have killed quite a few people, especially civilians. You cannot say that, comes the strangled cry from the Ministry of Defence. We don’t know how many people (apart from four civilians) have been killed. Says the MOD mouthpiece, there are “difficulties and risks” knowing who has been killed and others maimed by the British Grim Reapers.
The guidance operation runs from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada where the RAF and USAF personnel tell you you’d get better odds beating the slots in Las Vegas than you would hiding from a Reaper or Predator (the US drone) circling the Afghan-Pak border.
What the VJM (very junior minister) was not asked – because he wouldn’t have answered – was this: ‘Will the noble Lord tell the House what contingency plans have been made to target President al Assad’s palace or any other target of some humanitarian mission in Syria- should there be one?’
And here my noble lords and everyone else concerned with modern military methods and in particular the what-next question in Syria is the answer: every day at Nellis AFB there is a Tactical, Theatre and Strategic Target Review (TTSTR) of possible (but not yet probable) drone targets everywhere – mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this review update now includes Syria.
Let’s just think of the problem from Washington’s viewpoint (cloned in London 48 hours later).
The US wants the civil war in Syria to end. The United Nations has come up with a plan. That plan lies in tatters between Damascus and Aleppo.
The US does not even contemplate a boots on the ground solution. The US does see the possibility of some foreign intervention as a transition guarantor but only once the war has ended and both sides agree to intervention; and then it could not take place without a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) – and a majority vote may not be enough for that.
The Chemical Warfare (CW) Intelligence Assessments suggests that the Syrian army under 4 Divisional command could use supposed stocks of CW as a threat and could even sanction limited release. Pressure is on from Jordan and Israel to neutralise any CW capability.
Now what does the US commander-in-chief , aka President Obama, get from this?
A diplomatic solution is not possible. The removal of al Assad will not necessarily end the conflict, certainly not in the long term where the so-called rebels are not to be trusted.
Any military action has to have a UNSCR number. (This is election year and we keep all life legal),
So Mr Obama is offered two thoughts: bring three targets to the top – Bashar al Assad, his brother Maser al Assad and the 4 Division Army command, control and communications. How to do that? Ask the guys at Nellis AFB – after all, it was one of their drones that hit Gaddafi’s convoy when he made his final run for cover. Easy-Peasy Mr President.
Then we get to the Chemical Warfare. Binary CW is kept in secure conditions and then deployed from limited sites as and when needed and only to highly trained CW specialists. For the past few weeks, the US and the Israelis have monitored all radio and mobile traffic between the CW command, the CW stores and, where possible, the individuals in the chain of command that would implement any order to release the systems. They have also monitored signals showing the readiness state of CW troops.
It’s only when that appears to be in build-up that any President may contemplate hitting that command chain.
And, what weapons could do all this? Answer: Drones.
The President has to sign off every single armed drone flight (some are reconnaissance flights).
First question from the President: Okay, suppose we hit the al Assad Brothers, the higher command and even CW activating systems, then what do we do to stop the killings? It’s at that stage the pointy heads at Nellis AFB, in the Pentagon, in the State Department and at the US UN mission look away. They don’t know the answer. That’s the real dilemma.
The US and the UK have the means to hit targets, but the real target is peace in Syria and no one has a weapon that can deliver that. Makes the VJM in the Lords look a bit ordinary, doesn’t it?