Op Shader, the UK’s contribution to war on the so-called Islamic State terror group, is now four years old.
The UK remains the second largest contributor behind the US, with jets still flying near daily missions from their base in Cyprus.
In an exclusive report, Simon Newton has been speaking to two senior RAF commanders about the air campaign and battle to defeat Daesh.
Inside RAF Akrotiri, a pair of Tornados prepared to depart on a combat sortie.
They’ve now been flying these missions for more than four years, helping to destroy Islamic State’s grip over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.
Group Captain Andy Coope, Commanding Officer, 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, told us about the missions: “It’ll be people, sometimes it’ll be the equipment that we find there, tunnels and other targets.
"We really are flexible to meet whatever those commanders on the ground need, to put Daesh under pressure and defeat them.”
Since the RAF flew its first combat sorties against Islamic State or Daesh back in September 2014, these jets, plus Reaper drones based in the Middle East, have launched 1700 airstrikes.
New footage released exclusively to Forces News shows some of those recent missions.
Close up, you can see the guided weapon about to hit its target, the RAF says this was an IS truck bomb factory.
Elsewhere, the RAF hit a vehicle-borne IED, the impact setting off a huge secondary explosion.
Air Commodore Justin Reuter, Middle East Air Component Commander told us about what they have achieved so far: “It’s very much compressed now so 98% of the land that was taken by Daesh over four years ago has now been liberated either by forces in Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or by the Iraqi Security Forces.
“Actually, they’re now squeezed and compressed into an area which is close to the Iraqi border, and raises up the Middle Euphrates River Valley, the MERV as we call it, into Syria.
“I think it’s also important to say that Daesh isn’t defeated yet.
“Although most of Daesh’s fighters are compressed into that area, and obviously there’s very fierce fighting that the Air Force is supporting at the moment in that area, we’re also doing a lot to help the Iraqi Security Forces in their own country as they counter what could be an insurgency.”
While IS has vastly shrunk as a fighting force, the cost of Op Shader has risen sharply.
In the first year of operations back in 2014 the UK spent more than £47m on Op Shader.
Over the following two years, that figure rose ten-fold; £262.4m in 2015-16 to £469.4m in 2016-2017.
In the last financial year, 2017 to 2018, the bill for fighting Daesh reached more than £583m.
For the RAF, Op Shader has been the highest tempo operation of the past 25 years.
But with IS effectively defeated on the battlefield and pushed into a small area of Syria, the question for coalition commanders is how much longer do they continue this mission.
Air Commodore Reuter explained why they were still needed: “We’re really there at the invitation of the Iraqi government.
“Even though Daesh is largely eliminated in the heaviest concentrations that it was, it still provides a considerable problem to the Iraqi government, and they will require support.
“Not just in capacity building that we’re doing there with their Armed Forces, but also the physical support of our Air Forces as well.
“In Syria it’s a difficult problem because the Syrian Regime has been unwilling or unable to counter Daesh throughout much of its country.
“We’re still defending Iraqi territory, that’s why we’re fighting in the skies above Syria in order to eliminate Daesh if we possibly can.”
Although 79 nations are signed up to the coalition against IS, only four – the US, UK, France and the Netherlands – are flying regular combat sorties.
With the Tornado due to retire next Spring, the RAF’s new F35 could soon be thrust into the fight.
Air Commodore Reuter said: “The F35 is available for us, and the F35 will reach a combat capability in December this year.
“Obviously, the squadrons are still working up at the moment.
“With F35 as well, it has to be neatly tied into the carrier programme. That’s really of significant national importance to us as well.”
While overall, the tempo is downward, September was actually the RAF’s busiest period for since February.