The Commons is debating extending air strikes against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria. With Labour MPs given a free vote, the government is expected to win.
Britain already has eight Tornado GR4 fighter jets in the region (which are being used against Islamic State in Iraq), along with 10 MQ-9 Reaper drones (which are being used in Iraq and Syria).
A vote in favour of military action in Syria would lead to more Tornados and Typhoons being flown to Britain’s air base in Cyprus. It is thought the number of aircraft available to RAF crew could be doubled if there is parliamentary approval.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Channel 4 News he would expect Britain to take military action “very quickly… probably not tonight, but it could be tomorrow night”.
He said Britain was “already flying reconnaissance missions over Syria, with British planes carrying weapons over Syria into Iraq, so it would be a relatively simple exercise to extend the permissions to allow them to release those weapons over Syria, where they identify legitimate targets”.
In July, despite the fact MPs had voted against extending air strikes from Iraq to Syria, it was revealed that British pilots embedded with US-led coalition air crews, and under foreign command, had been carrying out strikes in Syria against Islamic State.
At the time, the Ministry of Defence said British personnel had been authorised “to participate in coalition operations”, with pilots involved in surveillance, reconnaissance and air strikes.
In September, David Cameron told MPs that an RAF drone strike had killed two British Islamic State militants, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, in the IS de facto capital Raqqa.
The prime minister said it was an “act of self-defence” against those plotting attacks against Britain.
The US, France, Russia and others are already bombing IS targets in Syria, but Mr Cameron is adamant Britain can make a valuable contribution.
Tornados fire laser-guided Brimstone missiles, which are said to be more accurate than munitions used by other countries, which helps to minimise civilian casualties.
According to Justin Bronk, research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute: “Brimstone is widely considered to be the most accurate air-launched, anti-vehicle missile in the world, thanks to a millimetric-wave radar seeker which can recognise and hit individual parts of target vehicles.
“Due to the weapon’s extreme accuracy, the dual-shaped charge warhead is significantly smaller than comparable weapons such as the US-made Hellfire series, which both reduces collateral damage and allows more missiles to be carried by each aircraft (up to twelve per Tornado).”
It should be borne in mind, though, that mistakes happen in war. Channel 4 News has seen records which show that the Ministry of Defence has paid out almost £1m to the families of 360 civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq (watch video above).
Britain’s Reaper drones have been carrying out surveillance in Syria for several months, and Mr Bronk says that while allowing them to use their Hellfire missiles would add to coalition firepower, this “would not be a strategic or even tactical game changer”.
He says the RAF has “excellent ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capabilities, which are in huge demand in Syria”, but these have been employed “for many months”.
A vote in favour of sir strikes “would not significantly increase Britain’s ISR contributions in Syria”, with a decision to extend military action hinging on “geopolitical judgements rather than operational considerations”.