RAF Commander Reveals What Israel and U.K. Tried to Hide

A new book by a former senior British officer reveals that U.K. warplanes flew over Israel on their way to bomb Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria

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Two RAF tornados and a voyager tanker overfly Israel back from an ISIS mission in Syria/Iraq, in 2015.
Two RAF tornados and a voyager tanker overfly Israel back from an ISIS mission in Syria/Iraq, in 2015. Credit: Hezi Shmueli
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For seven and a half years now, armed British warplanes have been overflying Israel from Cyprus on a daily basis to bomb targets in Syria and Iraq.

This operational detail, which the British and Israeli governments tried to hide, has been revealed following the publication of a new book by a former senior British officer who commanded some of the missions.

Britain’s Operation Shader – its military intervention against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – began in August 2014 and is still ongoing. Most of the operation's missions have been bombings and close air support sorties of fighter-jets based out of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) base at Akrotiri in Cyprus. En route to their targets in Iraq and Syria, the RAF's Tornado, Typhoon and F-35 fighter-jets, often accompanied by aerial tankers and reconnaissance aircraft, routinely cross over Israel and then Jordan before arriving over Iraq and Syria.

For diplomatic reasons, the governments involved have preferred not to disclose the route. But in a new book, “Typhoon – The Inside Story of an RAF Fighter Squadron at War,” retired RAF Wing Commander Mike Sutton specifies the countries over which he and his fellow pilots flew.

RAF tanker and typhoons as part of Britain’s Operation Shader.

Sutton commanded RAF’s 1 Squadron, which was deployed to Akrotiri in December 2015 and was the first to carry out strikes on ISIS targets within Syria (strikes on targets in Iraq had been taking place since the previous August).

In the book, Sutton writes of the first sortie RAF over Syria, where he and another pilot bombed an oil pipeline being used by ISIS: “We curved east and coasted over Tel Aviv. From the streets below, people if they gazed up would have just seen a couple of white strobe lights flashing high in the night sky. From the cockpit, the starbursts of sparkling city lights were blinding through the NVGs. A few aircraft, lower over the water, were making their approaches into Ben-Gurion, the international airport.”

Sutton reminisces how “each day I cruised over the Dead Sea and watched as it gave way to the rocky, rugged expanse of desert.” While the RAF overflights back and forth are now a twice-daily occurrence, they were originally the subject of intense coordination between the British and Israeli militaries. “Allowing another country to fly through your airspace with full bomb-loads and live missiles on their way to attack a third country is never a simple procedure,” a senior officer involved in the original coordination said at the time.

Both countries tried to keep the arrangement under wraps, though the RAF aircraft were occasionally spotted and even photographed by Israeli aviation enthusiasts. In many cases, the overflights even appeared on websites which track air traffic control radars and were commented upon on social media. But until now, Israel and the U.K. had managed to keep the flights out of the press.

Despite the British Ministry of Defense widely publicizing Operation Shader, it remained coy as to the route flown by the aircraft. One of the concerns was that Israel should be seen as taking part in the coalition against ISIS, which includes Arab states that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. “This isn’t something we want to be widely known or publicized,” said a senior British diplomat in 2014 when the overflights began.

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