Defence Statistics and the Air Warfare Centre released a statistics bulletin covering Aircraft sorties, hours and weapons released for Operation HERRICK, Afghanistan.
It makes for some fascinating reading but it is worth repeating pointing to Page 16 before starting, the section on making like for like comparisons or drawing conclusions from bare data.
So, click here to read, but skip to Page 16 first.
The key points and trends, quoting from the report, are;
- Harriers were used in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009, when they were withdrawn from service and replaced by Tornados, which were used up to the end of Op HERRICK. Harrier and Tornado flew more than 56,000 hours in total, averaging about 500 hours per month between 2007 and 2013.
- Reaper was introduced in Afghanistan in 2007. Unlike Harrier and Tornado, Reaper is remotely piloted and is primarily tasked in an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance role, but also has an armed capability. Reaper’s annual flying hours steadily increased between its introduction in 2007 and 2011, due to a staged increase in Reaper platforms arriving in Theatre and the subsequent increase in missions flown. Reaper flew more than 71,000 hours in total, averaging just over 1,000 hours per month in 2011 and 2012. This increased in 2013 and 2014.
- All the Unmanned Aircraft Systems operated by the British Army are unarmed. Hermes aircraft flew over 85,000 hours in Afghanistan in total, and the Desert Hawks more than 18,000 hours.
- To obtain a fair measure of weapon usage frequency, which accounts for the different types of weapon available to each aircraft, each mission report received from Theatre is retrospectively examined to determine the number of Weapon Release Events (WREs) during that mission. The number and frequency of WREs peaked in 2006. After 2006, there were downward trends in the numbers and frequencies, which were not significantly altered by the switch from Harrier to Tornado, or the introduction of Reaper. The overall WRE rate was highest for Harrier, followed by Reaper, then Tornado.
- Comparing only precision-guided munitions (PGM), and ignoring all the use of unguided weapons by Harrier and Tornado, the total number PGM used by RAF fixed-wing aircraft each year did not substantially change with the introduction of Reaper: Harrier was the only RAF fixed-wing aircraft which expended PGM until 2007, and in 2007 it expended 119. From 2008, PGM were also expended by Tornado and Reaper, and the average from 2008 to 2013 was 121 per year.
- The overall rate of PGM expended was highest for Harrier, followed by Reaper, then Tornado.
To which I would also add;
- The data does not include 27mm on Tornado, or 30mm on Apache,
- No CRV-7 for Apache or Harrier,
- No show of presence/show of force data,
- Sorties would not all be for British forces given the large area of operations and multinational nature of the air campaign,
- Different missions would be needed for different areas,
- The ‘surge’ and initial operations that heavily relied on close air support are not specifically mentioned,
- No differentiation between Close Air Support and deliberate strikes or interdiction missions,
- No mention of changing rules of engagement,
- No indication of when USMC support assets were available.
So with all the caveats and warnings it is difficult to draw any conclusions but it is clear that the hours flown between Harrier and Tornado remained relatively stable throughout the entire campaign, from a much smaller Harrier fleet, this is impressive. Hours flown by Hermes 450 and Reaper were vastly more than Harrier or Tornado, entirely as one might expect.
Where the graphs and data tables in the report don’t do, is present the Army and RAF data together. The report makes it clear that it has been unable to obtain reliable data for Apache Hellfire expenditure and hours/sorties. There has, however, been some data released through Parliamentary Answers, it is fragmentary and incomplete but assuming it is relatively accurate, does allow a handful of point comparisons to be made.
Merging the data shows the hours flown between Harrier (until it was withdrawn), Tornado, Reaper and the leased Hermes 450’s.
Watchkeeper managed 60 hours in 2014 but not included in the graph.
The Hermes 450 is air vehicle base design as Watchkeeper but the amount of hours flown by it compared to even Reaper is dramatic. As combat operations started reducing in 2012 its hours reduced whilst Reaper increased slightly, the changing nature of operations I guess. This chimes with a number of comments that Hermes provided the majority of tactical ISTAR for operations.
The second series of graphs below shows precision guided weapons released by each aircraft type.
The data and report do not show Hellfire missiles fired by Apache attack helicopters. Add in the 4 years of data from PQ’s and it shows for those years where data is available, Hellfire from Apache was much more common than fast jet or RPAS released weapons.
With GMLRS being increasingly used I thought I would add in usage for that as well. Unfortunately, only 1 year of data is available from PQ’s the first full year it was used, 2009.
No additional GMLRS data is available in Hansard but if anyone has anything to add to these, I will update the table and graph.
It would seem that for operations in Afghanistan, once Apache and GMLRS were in theatre, the Army expended the vast majority of precision guided weapons and RPAS flying hours in support of the ISTAR requirement.
There is also a curious statement about the sharp decrease in PGM release by Tornado in 2011, explained by ‘a focus on operations in Libya’
Does this mean we didn’t have enough stock of Dual Mode Brimstone and Paveway IV for simultaneous operations in two theatres and had to prioritise one over the other?
The hours flown remained fairly steady in this period and given that air support was an ISAF, not national, responsibility others would have picked up the gap..
Clearly, munition availability was an issue.