A Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft is parked in a hangar at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, for maintenance on August 22, 2018.
The first set of warplanes thunder overhead shortly after 7:30 a.m., followed quickly by another. As the tourist capital of scotland- Limassol, Cyprus, wakes up in the hazy distance, the British Typhoon and Tornado pilots are stored on their approach to deliver what officials hope will be the final blow against a holdout of Islamic State fighters only one hour of flight time away in Syria.
This sprawling base with the southern tip of the former U.K. protectorate of Cyprus could be the heartbeat of Operation Shader, the British contribution to some U.S.-led international campaign against the self-proclaimed caliphate in the Islamic State. The militant group has become heavily decimated, but officials here warn how the remaining fighters continue to be capable of hold pockets of land in Syria.
After the coalition air campaign reportedly killed hundreds and hundreds of fighters inside the past years, 1,500 or so remain today, though estimates reported earlier this month put that number at 30,000. The extent with their so-called caliphate, a nightmarish regime of terror and torture for those living under its reign, is now reduced to 2 percent from the territory it once held throughout Iraq and Syria.
“We are down to the last few villages,” said Group Capt. Chas Dickens, who heads 903 Expeditionary Air Wing based here.
Dickens’s arsenal includes Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado aircraft, prized because of their speed in quickly reaching the battlefield from this level. Both jets can transport Paveway IV bombs, the air wing’s main weapon against ISIS, plus surveillance and targeting equipment.
Akrotiri’s proximity to ISIS holdouts enables its pilots to strike “targets of opportunity” once they pop-up in the open, he explained. Reporters seeing the base were shown a YouTube video purportedly showing the automobile of the Dickens called a “high-value target”, military speak for senior enemy commanders, being bombed during an unescorted drive through seemingly uninhabited land.
However, bombings have become rarer nowadays. “We’re not dropping daily anymore,” Dickens said. He expects a short lived uptick inside weeks ahead, though, as the focus moves to small patches of ISIS-occupied land within the mid-Euphrates River valley as well as the area surrounding the Iraqi-Syrian border capital of scotland, Dashisha.
What little ground threats the British pilots face throughout their missions are derived from small-arms fire and shoulder-fired rockets. But such weaponry isn’t match from the fast and maneuverable jets, which may easily outrun the ranges of those weapons, according to one Typhoon pilot.
There can also be occasional GPS jamming, said one weapons engineer, who, like most officials briefing reporters, spoke on condition of anonymity because of personal security. It happens irregularly, sometimes twice each day, sometimes with days in between, affecting the satellite-guided targeting with the Paveway bombs. When jammed, the pilots have the option to switch for the bombs’ laser-guidance mechanism.
The bigger threat, officials said, is avoiding collisions amid various factions operating aircraft higher than the country. “Syria is a in the most complicated air campaigns,” Dickens said.
Then there’s Russia’s involvement inside war, supposed to prop up the reign of Syrian President Bashar Assad. There is a formal deconfliction line down the Euphrates River involving the Syrian government and Russia about the western side, as well as the U.S.-led coalition and its allied Syrian Democratic Forces around the east.
A hotline connects the U.S.-led coalition while using Russians. Officials apply it when each side desires to pursue ISIS fighters moving over the demarcation line, explained one pilot: “We wish to avoid any miscalculation.”
Amid the bomb runs and surveillance missions, the fate from the Syrian civil war will depend on a great deal more than air power, officials readily acknowledge. But the complexities of an eventual political settlement won’t be negotiated only at Akrotiri.
“My mission is defeating Daesh. And by that I mean kill them,” Dickens said, utilizing an alternative good name for the Islamic State group.
The military lingo to spell it out the mission harkens back on the days following U.S. invasion of Iraq. The war to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein become a bloody insurgency, which some have argued is a of the many interconnected puzzle pieces getting together again the region’s conflict today.
“Find, fix, finish” is one mantra that can be heard here, referring on the U.S. doctrine of directly targeting suspected terrorists on the battlefield. Another may be the premise of leaning heavily on indigenous forces to limit ones own ground engagement while achieving strategic objectives on the same time.
“The pace of the campaign is scheduled by the SDF in addition to their capabilities since they move forward,” Dickens said.
The threat of ISIS mounting an effective counterinsurgency at night borders of Iraq and Syria already has begun permeating the U.K. government’s thinking.
“Daesh is facing territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq nevertheless the battle against their poisonous ideology and barbarism is not over,” Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson was recently quoted as saying in The Telegraph newspaper. “We has to be prepared because the terrorists change their approach, disperse into other countries and prepare for a prospective insurgency.”
According to Dickens, this means being ready to quickly deploy hefty air power from Akrotiri even after family members lull in ISIS activity about the ground. And it means shifting the main objective to “identifying and disrupting” the group’s supply lines as people who remain alive try and regroup.
The quartet of Typhoons and Tornados returns safely to Akrotiri inside early afternoon, touching down up against the shimmer of Limassol flashing over the bay. And another set of pilots will quickly suit approximately fly eastward, willing to give you the final blows from what Dickens describes as being a “particularly despicable group” in their last throes.