UK has sent 74 war planes from Cyprus to Lebanon since March

Number of RAF aircraft landed in Beirut by Britain, a key backer of the Israeli military, has surged in recent months amid threats of a new offensive, but their purpose remains unclear.

27 June 2024
Flight path of a RAF-operated Voyager aircraft which flew from Cyprus to Lebanon on June 11. (Screengrab: RadarBox)

Flight path of a RAF-operated Voyager aircraft which flew from Cyprus to Lebanon on June 11. (Screengrab: RadarBox)

  • Ministry of Defence refuses to divulge number of flights but Declassified constructs timeline
  • Most RAF flights are Voyager aircraft which can carry nearly 300 soldiers
  • Declassified understands flights are “primarily facilitating senior military engagement”
  • Hezbollah has warned Cypriot government not to aid Israel

Britain has sent over 80 military transport planes to Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, since the bombing of Gaza began, Declassified can reveal. 

All the flights have gone from RAF Akrotiri, Britain’s sprawling air base on Cyprus which has long been a staging post for bombing missions in the Middle East. It sits 150 miles, or 45 minutes flight time, from Beirut.

There has been a steady stream of flights since the Israeli assault on Gaza began in October, but the number rose dramatically in April with 25 flights going from Akrotiri to Beirut. 

May saw the same number of flights, with another 14 so far this month. 

The spike in flights – now totalling 84 since October – comes amid soaring tensions between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

But it remains unclear what is behind them. A defence source told Declassified the flights “have been primarily for the purpose of facilitating senior military engagement”.

But a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson would only tell Declassified: “The UK is committed to its longstanding support to the Lebanese Armed Forces and routinely support them with training and exercises, which helps maintain Lebanon’s security.”

The MoD told parliament on May 13 it could not divulge the number of RAF planes that had flown to Lebanon since October 7. 

“The RAF undertakes regular flights to the Middle East region as part of our routine engagement and to conduct humanitarian aid airdrops,” defence minister Leo Docherty said. “For operational security considerations we will not comment further.”

But this secrecy was excessive. Docherty admitted to parliament on the same day that the RAF had flown two planes to Israel in the previous fortnight. Declassified used flight tracker data to construct its own timeline for the Lebanon flights.

A Voyager aircraft takes off from RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus. 80 of these planes have been flown to Lebanon by the RAF since October. (Photo: UK MoD)
A Voyager aircraft takes off from RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus. 80 of these planes have been flown to Lebanon by the RAF since October. (Photo: UK MoD)

Lebanon offensive

Nearly every RAF flight to Lebanon has been the Voyager KC mark 2. These can carry a payload of 45 tonnes and 291 personnel, or provide air-to-air refuelling. Another flight involved a vast C-17 cargo plane. 

Last week Israel’s army approved “operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon” after months of cross-border sorties.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah responded with a speech that threatened Cyprus for the first time, pointing out how Israel uses the eastern Mediterranean island for military exercises.

“The Cypriot government must be warned that opening Cypriot airports and bases for the Israeli enemy to target Lebanon means that the Cypriot government has become part of the war and the resistance [Hezbollah] will deal with it as part of the war,” he said.

Although Israel’s army conducts joint exercises with Cypriot forces, Nasrallah may also have been threatening British facilities on the island.

The UK has two Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus, which it retained after independence in 1960. They comprise vast military and intelligence hubs for Britain and the US.

WikiLeaks previously revealed that American U-2 spy flights from Akrotiri had collected intelligence over Lebanon. More recently, RAF surveillance flights have been tracked flying close to Lebanon since October.

In the four months before October, Declassified could find only one UK flight which went from RAF Akrotiri to Beirut. 

Countering Hezbollah?

Britain’s Conservative government proscribed the entirety of Hezbollah as a terrorist group in 2019, despite its elected representatives holding positions in Lebanon’s cabinet.

Power in Lebanon is shared between the three main religious groups, with Hezbollah leading the country’s Shia Muslims.

While proscribing Hezbollah, which Nasrallah claims has 100,000 fighters, the UK has forged ties with other armed groups in Lebanon, particularly its army and police.

Last October, the Daily Mail reported that hundreds of elite UK army rangers were training with Lebanon’s army for “rescue missions to save Britons trapped in Gaza”.

General Sir Patrick Sanders said the rangers had “built up a very close relationship with Lebanese armed forces. That provides an insight and influence on to Lebanese decision-making and seeing things from the other side of the northern border [with Israel]”.

The UK is also spending at least £18.5-million on “stability” programmes in Lebanon in part to instil “responsibility amongst those living within the Palestinian camps” which are described as “volatile communities”.

Close to 300,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon having been driven out of Palestine.

The programme in Lebanon has the stated aim of delivering “internal and external security”, by “equipping, training and mentoring” the Lebanese armed forces and backing the Internal Security Forces (ISF), a militarised police unit.

One project focuses on “the prevention of violence and violent extremism in flash point areas (including Palestinian camps)” and “increasing resilience of volatile communities (including Palestinians refugees)”.


60 British war planes have landed in Israel since Gaza...


The flights

The first UK flight went from RAF Akrotiri to Beirut on October 25, but there was only one other flight that month. November then saw three flights, December just one, and January none.

In February the number began to rise, with five flights, while March saw 10. The number then jumped to 25 in April.

Sometimes there have been multiple flights per day. On 13 different days since March, the RAF has flown two Voyagers to Beirut. On April 13, it sent three. 

The flights had the capacity in total to transport over 23,000 UK military personnel to Lebanon. 

It is not just Voyagers that have been sent from Akrotiri to Lebanon. On March 1 an enormous RAF-operated C-17 landed in Beirut. In October and November, four huge A400M military transport aircraft were sent. 

Declassified has previously revealed that the UK has sent 36 military flights from RAF Akrotiri to Israel since October 7.