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RAF Reaper drone was involved in botched US Syria airstrike

British unmanned system used in strike that killed 62 non-enemy troops

drone
An MQ-9 Reaper drone, similar to those operated by the RAF

A British Reaper drone was part of the US airstrike that killed 62 Syrian government soldiers on Saturday, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed.

A terse statement from the Ministry said the UK “participated in the recent coalition air strike in Syria, south of Dayr az Zawr”, adding: “The UK would not intentionally target Syrian military units.”

MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the Royal Air Force are usually armed with 500lb laser-guided bombs and Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The unmanned aerial vehicles are operated remotely by a human crew of two, though ground crew are present in the warzone to refuel and re-arm the drones.

The use of the RAF drone was revealed by BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale:

British involvement in the botched strike was admitted by the MoD three days afterwards, despite the drone's British operators, Nevada-based 39 Squadron RAF, doubtless having been aware of the operation.

“The BBC say it was a British Reaper,” Chris Woods of Airwars.org told The Register, “but that doesn't mean it played a part in the kinetic strike. It sounds like this was a massed raid.”

Woods explained how the RAF's Reapers are mainly used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in Syria, though it is not unknown for them to carry out strikes themselves. While the armed forces are keen to emphasise the “precision” of the latest hi-tech equipment, Woods said the boasts about precision “tell you nothing about the effect when it gets to the target”, particularly if – as in this case – the wrong target is identified.

“This absolutely highlights something we've been trying to draw attention to for two years,” he said.

Saturday's botched strike was supposed to be targeting Islamic State forces in the eastern Syrian city. Russian officials said the strike killed 62 Syrian personnel who were under the command of the Russian-friendly government of president Bashar al-Assad.

The US “believed they were striking a Daesh [Islamic State] fighting position,” according to a US Central Command statement given to the New York Times. “The coalition airstrike was halted immediately when coalition officials were informed by Russian officials that it was possible the personnel and vehicles targeted were part of the Syrian military.”

Fighting in Syria has raged over the last few years as the West struggles to decide whether to oust either al-Assad or the Islamic State from the region. The situation is far from clear, especially as Russia overtly waded in to back al-Assad several months ago.

A “coalition investigation” is now taking place into the US-led strike. Two Danish F-16 jets and Australian forces were also involved, according to Australian broadcaster ABC – which also reported that the Russians said two F-16s and two A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack jets, which entered Syria from Iraq, carried out the strike. ®

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