RAF AKROTIRI, Cyprus — The first pair of warplanes thunder overhead shortly after 7:30 a.m., followed quickly by another. As the tourist city of Limassol, Cyprus, wakes up in the hazy distance, the British Typhoon and Tornado pilots are on their way to deliver what officials hope will be the final blow against a holdout of Islamic State fighters just one hour of flight time away in Syria.
This sprawling base at the southern tip of the former U.K. protectorate of Cyprus is the heartbeat of Operation Shader, the British contribution to a U.S.-led international campaign against the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State. The militant group has been heavily decimated, but officials here warn that the remaining fighters are still able to hold pockets of land in Syria.
After the coalition air campaign reportedly killed tens of thousands of fighters in the past years, 1,500 or so remain today, though estimates reported earlier this month put that number at 30,000. The extent of their so-called caliphate, a nightmarish regime of terror and torture for those living under its reign, is now reduced to 2 percent of 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.
Defense News visited RAF Akrotiri at the invitation of Typhoon-maker Eurofighter, which paid for travel and accommodations.
Dickens’s arsenal includes Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado aircraft, prized for their speed in quickly reaching the battlefield from here. Both jets can carry 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” when they pop up in the open, he said. Reporters visiting the base were shown a video purportedly showing the vehicle of what Dickens called a “high-value target” — military speak for senior enemy commanders — being bombed during an unescorted drive through seemingly uninhabited land.
However, bombings are becoming rarer these days. “We’re not dropping daily anymore,” Dickens said. He expects a temporary uptick in the weeks ahead, though, as the focus moves to small patches of ISIS-occupied land in the mid-Euphrates River valley and the area around the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Dashisha.
What little ground threats the British pilots face during their missions come from small-arms fire and shoulder-fired rockets. But such weaponry is no match against the fast and maneuverable jets, which can easily outrun the ranges of these weapons, according to one Typhoon pilot.
There is also occasional GPS jamming, said one weapons engineer, who, like most officials briefing reporters, spoke on condition of anonymity due to personal security. It happens irregularly — sometimes twice per day, sometimes with days in between — affecting the satellite-guided targeting of the Paveway bombs. When jammed, the pilots have the option to switch to the bombs' laser-guidance mechanism.
The bigger threat, officials said, is avoiding collisions amid the various factions operating aircraft above the country. “Syria is one of the most complicated air campaigns,” Dickens said.
Then there is Russia’s involvement in the war, meant to prop up the reign of Syrian President Bashar Assad. There is a formal deconfliction line along the Euphrates River between the Syrian government and Russia on the western side, and the U.S.-led coalition and its allied Syrian Democratic Forces on the east.
A hotline connects the U.S.-led coalition with the Russians. Officials use it when either side wants to pursue ISIS fighters moving across the demarcation line, explained one pilot: “We want to avoid any miscalculation.”
Amid the bomb runs and surveillance missions, the fate of the Syrian civil war will depend on far more than air power, officials readily acknowledge. But the complexities of an eventual political settlement are not going to be negotiated here at Akrotiri.
“My mission is defeating Daesh. And by that I mean kill them,” Dickens told Defense News, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
The military lingo to describe the mission harkens back to the days following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The war to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein turned into a bloody insurgency, which some have argued is one of the many interconnected puzzle pieces making up the region’s conflict today.
“Find, fix, finish” is one mantra that can be heard here, referring to the U.S. doctrine of directly targeting suspected terrorists on the battlefield. Another is the premise of leaning heavily on indigenous forces to limit one's own ground engagement while achieving strategic objectives at the same time.
“The pace of the campaign is set by the SDF and their capabilities as they move forward,” Dickens said.
The threat of ISIS mounting an effective counterinsurgency beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria already has begun permeating the U.K. government’s thinking.
“Daesh is facing territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq but the battle against their poisonous ideology and barbarism is not over,” Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was recently quoted as saying in The Telegraph newspaper. “We must be prepared as the terrorists change their approach, disperse into other countries and prepare for a potential insurgency.”
According to Dickens, that means being prepared to quickly deploy hefty air power from Akrotiri even after a relative lull in ISIS activity on the ground. And it means shifting the focus to “identifying and disrupting” the group’s supply lines as those who remain alive try to regroup.
The quartet of Typhoons and Tornados returns safely to Akrotiri in the early afternoon, touching down against the shimmer of Limassol flashing across the bay. And another set of pilots will soon suit up to fly eastward, ready to deliver the final blows to what Dickens describes as a “particularly despicable group” in its last throes.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.