Recent data compiled by Steffan Watkins, a Canadian research consultant who tracks planes and ships, reveals that the Royal Air Force has conducted over 250 Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) sorties near Gaza since December 3, 2023.

These flights, say the Ministry of Defence, are to help locate hostages being held in Gaza.

The first recorded arrival of the aircraft at RAF Akrotiri was on October 25, 2023. Initial test flights took place in the following days, preparing for the full-scale ISR operations. The dedicated ISR missions near Gaza officially commenced on December 3, 2023, with the flight of the aircraft registered as ZZ507 with the call sign RFR7145.

Watkins told the UK Defence Journal that these flights occur almost daily, with aircraft often flying one or two overlapping missions per day, typically taking Saturdays off. Watkins also highlighted the importance of asking whether these operations have incidentally collected intelligence on potential war crimes in the region.

“The RAF have flown over 250 publicly-identifiable sorties, of RAF Shadow R.1 ISTAR aircraft, toward Gaza, since they started operations December 3, 2023, about 6 months ago. I looked at every day of flights; they seem to fly on most days, often one or two (overlapping) flights a day, and tend to take Saturday off. Rotations of aircraft from the UK happen regularly. If they were gathering signals intelligence or using their digital electro optical sensor(s), they’ve been gathering some form of data for hours every sortie, for 250 stories.

They’re in a warzone apparently rife with atrocities, and I think it’s very reasonable to ask if they’ve been witness to any war crimes, if they’ve incidentally collected intelligence that could reasonably believed to involve a war crime, and if so, what is their process to deal with that? If they don’t yet want to talk about what they’ve been doing for the past six months for truly operational security reasons, they already told us they would be operating there 6 months ago, they should be able to assure us their process is sound vis-a-vis unintentional intelligence collection involving/witnessing atrocities.”

In December 2023, the Ministry of Defence outlined the purpose of these missions following the terrorist attacks against Israel on October 7, 2023. The official statement read:

“Since the terrorist attacks against Israel of 7 October 2023, the UK government has been working with partners across the region to secure the release of hostages, including British nationals, who have been kidnapped. The safety of British nationals is our utmost priority. In support of the ongoing hostage rescue activity, the UK Ministry of Defence will conduct surveillance flights over the Eastern Mediterranean, including operating in airspace over Israel and near Gaza.

Surveillance aircraft will be unarmed, do not have a combat role, and will be tasked solely to locate hostages. Only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities responsible for hostage rescue.”

The RAF describes the aircraft on their website as follows:

“Through a combination of sensors, Shadow contributes to the comprehensive intelligence gathering of the RAFs ISTAR Force. Its output is particularly valuable to ground commanders. The Shadow’s high definition electro-optical and electronic sensors complements other platforms and capabilities, helping analysts prepare comprehensive intelligence products. 

Satellite communications links enable information to be downloaded and off-boarded during a mission and the aircraft is also fitted with a defensive aids suite. The existing Shadow fleet is being upgraded and further expanded to eight aircraft under the Shadow Mk2 Upgrade Programme.”

The comprehensive flight data provided by Watkins details the operational tempo and extent of these missions:

  • Initial Flights: The sorties commenced on October 25, 2023, with subsequent test flights on October 27 and 28.
  • Commencement of ISR Operations: The dedicated ISR flights near Gaza began on December 3, 2023, with the aircraft ZZ507 (RFR7145) leading the operations.
  • Consistent Operations: From December 3, 2023, the RAF ramped up its ISR missions, resulting in over 250 sorties conducted up to the present date.
  • Flight Details: The records include specific details such as aircraft registrations (e.g., ZZ418, ZZ507) and call signs (e.g., RFR7144, RFR7145).

In a recent parliamentary exchange, Kenny MacAskill MP, representing the Alba Party from East Lothian, directed two separate written questions to the Ministry of Defence concerning the extent of intelligence-sharing and the objectives of these surveillance missions.

The first question, posed on April 29, 2024, asked whether the data collected by these flights had been shared with the International Criminal Court. In a similar vein, on May 2, 2024, MacAskill inquired whether the RAF reconnaissance missions had detected any evidence of mass graves in the areas of Nasser and Al-Shifa Hospital.

Leo Docherty, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence and Minister for the Armed Forces, addressed both questions. He clarified that the UK’s unarmed reconnaissance aircraft are “employed solely for the purpose of locating the remaining hostages.”

The missions near Gaza underscore what the UK Government often describe as a commitment to supporting regional stability. While the operations have sparked important questions about the potential for incidental intelligence gathering related to war crimes, the Ministry of Defence maintains that these missions are conducted with strict adherence to international laws and ethical guidelines.

Experts like Steffan Watkins raise critical concerns that deserve attention, ensuring transparency and accountability in such operations. It remains crucial for the UK government and its partners to uphold rigorous oversight mechanisms, ensuring that any incidental intelligence is handled appropriately and in compliance with international standards.

Once again, a special thanks to Steffan Watkins, a Canadian research consultant who tracks planes and ships, for compiling the locations their transponders were transmitting, data collected by ADSBexchange.com and visible to all parties in the region.

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George has a degree in Cyber Security from Glasgow Caledonian University and has a keen interest in naval and cyber security matters and has appeared on national radio and television to discuss current events. George is on Twitter at @geoallison
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Steve
Steve (@guest_824873)
3 days ago

I don’t understand why we are getting involved. This is a war where neither side is on the right side of things, we should not be anywhere near it, it’s just putting UK citizens at risk as nutters link the UK to Israel and decide to lash out.

Jack
Jack (@guest_824877)
3 days ago
Reply to  Steve

You don’t think we should try and help locate dozens of innocent civilians who are being held hostage out of fear ? Thank God there were braver men 80 years ago.

Steve
Steve (@guest_824879)
3 days ago
Reply to  Jack

If isreal hadn’t acted like it has and it was just about getting the hostages out then for sure, but they have gone way way too far, and do not deserve support.

Steve
Steve (@guest_824881)
3 days ago
Reply to  Steve

I don’t get why hamas hasn’t released the hostages. It would push isreal into a difficult choice, if they continue to wipe out civilians even the US would stop backing them. Its an odd move but hard to apply logic to this conflict as attacking isreal in tbe first place was stupid if they cared about human life.

George
George (@guest_825078)
2 days ago
Reply to  Jack

There are no innocents in Gaza. Only terrorists and those who give them shelter. I hope we gave every scrap of useful data to the IDF for target identification.

George
George (@guest_825079)
2 days ago
Reply to  Jack

There are no innocents in Gaza. Only terrorists and those who give them shelter. It is a target rich environment. I hope we gave every scrap of useful data to the IDF for target identification.

George
George (@guest_825080)
2 days ago
Reply to  George

Echo!

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker (@guest_825639)
37 minutes ago
Reply to  George

There are always innocents in ever conflict. To suggest every single person in Gaza is happy with the leadership is silly. No country has 100% of the population agreeing with anything. Crikey people in the same country can’t even agree 100% that the world is round or that politicians aren’t lizard people in disguise.

Simon
Simon (@guest_824887)
3 days ago

This may become one hot potato in years to come. Hopefully those who committed war crimes either side will be found out. Worry for UK reputation if there’s MoD cover up.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_824908)
3 days ago
Reply to  Simon

Lots of flights for not many returned hostages. The more Hamas gets pushed into the corner I’d be surprised in any or many hostages will survive. They reckon 80+ are still alive now, that’s a couple of bus loads to shuffle around and hide underground. Plus the 40+, another bus load, that have died. Hope all sides can negotiate something, for the remaining hostages and all the 1000s of displaced Palestinians can somehow start to rebuild with international and UN help. Not sure how or if Israel will let Hamas out of the bag here with a free bus pass.

Steve
Steve (@guest_824915)
3 days ago
Reply to  Simon

They will get away with it, on both sides. Sooner or later there has to be peace, and that will need to be an internationally arranged one, which will no doubt include statements around no war crimes being committed by either side. Politics is politics. I struggle to not agree with the approach though. There are too many innocent civilians suffering that the greater good argument comes into play. Additionally if peace doesn’t occur soon, unfortunately the western backers will find themselves having terrorist attacks on them and that is likely to include the UK, which is a lot easier… Read more »

JimB
JimB (@guest_824889)
3 days ago

Colour me shocked RAF not working on a Saturday. Got to get the Buffet in

BobA
BobA (@guest_824938)
3 days ago
Reply to  JimB

The problem for them is that in Cyprus, the blue card with the hole in it always matches the sky, so they have to fly more than the UK. Saturday ensures that they don’t get too over worked.

Zac
Zac (@guest_825020)
2 days ago

Who is the RAF working for?. Israel or Hamas?. I ask because of the Islamic Supremacism common in Westminster these days.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker (@guest_825640)
34 minutes ago

So I assume the shadow fleet must have some special kit on them that other countries don’t have.
Problem will be that no matter how often the RAF say they are helping look for hostages there will be people that say they are bombing civilians