by Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 17 November 2023
The US is moving arms to Israel from around Europe using Britain’s vast air base on Cyprus, but the Ministry of Defence refuses to tell Declassified what American aircraft are flying or what weapons are on board.
- Britain’s Cyprus base has become international military hub supporting Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza
- American C-25 military transport plane flew from UK base on Cyprus to Tel Aviv on Wednesday
- US Air Force is making transport flights from its huge bases in Germany, Turkey and Spain to the UK’s Cyprus base
- Half of US planes flying from British Cyprus said to be carrying weapons for Israel
Respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that over 40 US transport aircraft, 20 British transport aircraft and seven heavy transport helicopters have flown to RAF Akrotiri, Britain’s vast base on Cyprus, carrying equipment, arms and forces.
RAF Akrotiri has long been the staging post for British military operations and bombing campaigns in the Middle East. It sits 180 miles from Tel Aviv with a flight time of 40 minutes.
The planes have been loaded with cargo from strategic depots belonging to the US and NATO in Europe, Haaretz reported. Around half the US flights are said to be “delivering military aid”.
Declassified has found these US weapons and equipment are likely being delivered to RAF Akrotiri from US bases in Turkey, Spain and Germany.
On October 18 and 24, the US flew two huge C-17A Globemaster military transport vehicles to RAF Akrotiri from its air base at Rota in southern Spain. On October 25, the US flew another C-17 to Akrotiri from Ramstein air base in Germany, the site of NATO’s air command.
The C-17 is capable of transporting 134 personnel and many types of military equipment, including Abrams tanks and Black Hawk helicopters. The US military notes that the C-17’s role is to “rapidly project and sustain an effective combat force close to a potential battle area”.
On November 5, a US C-130J Hercules military transport aircraft flew from Adana in southern Turkey to RAF Akrotiri. Adana is home to the Incirlik air base, a major US facility with 5,000 American personnel. The Hercules can carry 128 combat troops and 19,600kg of cargo.
Declassified could find no US Air Force (USAF) planes arriving from these bases in the two months before the Gaza bombing campaign began.
US planes landing at Nevatim Air Force Base – located in southern Israel near the Negev desert – have delivered arms for the Israel’s military, Haaretz also reported. In addition, US aircraft landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv have carried, among other things, armoured vehicles.
Declassified also found four USAF flights that departed from RAF Akrotiri in the last 12 days destined for Israel.
The aircraft were the CN-35 and C-295 military transport planes jointly developed by corporations CASA of Spain and IPTN of Indonesia. Their military roles include maritime patrol, surveillance, and transport of personnel and weapons. The C-295 can carry 71 troops and a 9,250kg payload.
Another USAF aircraft flew late on the night of 8 November from RAF Akrotiri to Lebanon’s capital Beirut and then back to Akrotiri again an hour later. It is not known what was picked up and/or dropped off.
Declassified asked the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) what US aircraft were flying to Israel from its base on Cyprus—and what they were carrying.
An MoD spokesperson refused to divulge the information, telling Declassified: “In response to the situation in Israel and Gaza, we are working with international partners to de-escalate the conflict, reinforce stability and support humanitarian efforts in the region. Any use of UK bases will be in line with these objectives.”
But it is believed the British government knows what is on the US planes. The MoD recently told parliament: “UK authorisation would be required for any [US] operations involving the use of the Sovereign Base Areas” on Cyprus.
‘Most significant international deployment’
Haaretz writes that Cyprus provides “the most significant international deployment of forces and equipment” for military operations related to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza.
Declassified recently revealed that 33 UK military transport planes have flown from RAF Akrotiri to Tel Aviv since 11 October, including every day for two weeks soon after the Gaza bombing began.
The MoD confirmed 17 of these flights but refused to give any details of the cargo or personnel on board.
It is possible that UK special forces, the SAS, have been brought to Israel on some of these flights. The MoD has issued a “D-Notice” – a request to media to not publish information that could harm “national security” – to deter the UK press from reporting on the SAS role in Gaza.
The Sun reported on 27 October that the SAS had deployed to Cyprus.
Other covert activity includes the US military flying surveillance drones over the Gaza Strip, the New York Times reported on 2 November. The drones were discovered by the paper on a flight tracker website and later confirmed by two US Defense Department officials.
The aircraft are MQ-9 Reapers, which are operated by US Special Operations forces, the paper noted.
Declassified understands the New York Times could not establish where the drones were taking off from. The flight path indicates that it could be RAF Akrotiri, among other possible locations.
The MoD would not confirm or deny if US drones were flying from the British base on Cyprus.
The nature of the US military and intelligence presence on British Cyprus is shrouded in secrecy. Britain has two “Sovereign Base Areas” on Cyprus – known as Dhekelia in the east of the island and Akrotiri in the west – which are large, highly secretive military and intelligence installations comprising 3% of the island’s land area.
The USAF has had a base on British territory on Cyprus for nearly half a century, but its size was long kept secret from the public on both sides of the Atlantic.
Declassified recently revealed that the US is expanding its deployment on RAF Akrotiri to 129 airmen and building a new 147-room installation across 1.5 acres to house its personnel.
Declassified also revealed that a US spy force, the 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron (ERS), is permanently deployed at the British base despite Pentagon claims it only has one airman on Cyprus.
This squadron is the US military’s oldest flying unit and is responsible for training all high-altitude intelligence and reconnaissance aircrew for the U-2 spy plane, which was originally operated by the CIA.
The ERS, which is headquartered at Beale Air Force Base in California, also flies 2,400 hours of “combat support” missions annually with the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a surveillance drone manufactured by US arms company Northrop Grumman.
No evidence has so far emerged that the squadron, based 230 miles from Gaza, is supplying intelligence or combat support to aid Israeli military operations. The UK MoD would not confirm or deny when asked by Declassified.
The MoD also refuses to disclose the number of US military personnel on British territory. A Cypriot working on the UK base told us last year: “There is a big US presence, I don’t know how that works or why.”
The New York Times reported that the Pentagon has quietly dispatched to Cyprus commando teams from the Joint Special Operations Command, including the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, “to stand by in case they are needed to help evacuate American citizens from the region”.
Edward Snowden’s leaks in 2013 revealed the extensive US National Security Agency (NSA) presence across the British territories on Cyprus. A top secret GCHQ document noted: “Cyprus hosts a wide range of UK and US intelligence facilities”.
These facilities were said to include the communications interception facility at Ayios Nikolaos in Dhekelia, which also hosts a measurement and signatures intelligence, or MASINT, component. This highly technical field detects and describes the specific characteristics of target objects and sources.
Two more MASINT locations operating in partnership with the US are found on the Western base, including an unmanned facility at Cape Gata, just up from RAF Akrotiri.
At RAF Troodos, a British “retained site” near the border with northern Cyprus, the US operates another listening post, which utilises covert electronic intelligence gathering.
The Troodos site, GCHQ noted, “has long been regarded as a “‘Jewel in the Crown’ by NSA as it offers unique access to the Levant, North Africa, and Turkey”.
The document added: “Weapons-related collection from Troodos is used to support technical [signal intelligence] analysts in the US and UK.”
It is not known if the NSA is now sharing intelligence gathered on Cyprus with its Israeli counterparts.
Dutch and German presence
In addition to UK and US forces, Britain’s base on Cyprus is being used as a hub for Western military operations, with German and Dutch governments believed to have deployed special forces units there.
The German army’s Special Forces Command (KSK), its Navy Special Forces (KSM) unit – also known as combat swimmers – and the federal police Special Forces unit, which specialises in rescuing hostages (GSG 9), have all reportedly deployed to Cyprus.
Germany has also sent four transport aircraft along with the special forces.
Haaretz reported that four Dutch military transport planes have also arrived on Cyprus along with about 200 Marines, rapid reaction forces and consular staff “to facilitate emergency evacuation of Dutch citizens from the region in case of a widespread war with Hezbollah”.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Air Force has sent several military transport aircraft in preparation for any possible rescue. Planes and forces from other countries have also trickled into the small island.
As Declassified has previously reported, the International Criminal Court, which has an open investigation on Palestine, should request information from the British government about how its military and intelligence services, and the role of US assets on Cyprus, may be aiding Israel’s war on Gaza’s civilians.