Islamic State: UK military could honour drone pilots

RAF drone Image copyright MOD

Military drone pilots fighting so-called Islamic State could be awarded medals, the defence secretary has said.

Sir Michael Fallon said there would be a review of how servicemen and women were recognised for contributions to UK operations "outside the battle space".

Medals are currently given on the basis of rigour and risk, and when people are physically exposed to danger.

Sir Michael said a rethink may be needed as the UK increasingly deploys unmanned aircraft on operations.

'Changing warfare'

Speaking on a visit to British troops in Iraq, he said: "The changing character of warfare provides new challenges; not just about how we fight but also how we recognise and support those who serve.

"As fighting has evolved, we have adapted, ensuring our troops have cutting-edge equipment including unmanned systems operated from outside the battle space.

"Our recognition of service, the risks taken, and the long-term effects must therefore adapt too."

Operation Shader is the operation targeting Islamic State, or Daesh as the government refers to the group, in Iraq and Syria.

Sir Michael added: "We need to examine how to provide medallic recognition for those making a vital contribution to Op Shader outside the battle space, from Reaper pilots taking life-and-death decisions to those who ensure our planes can strike Daesh targets."

'Critical role'

Announcing a medal for others involved in Operation Shader, he said: "It is only right that those who've performed above and beyond in this fight against the evil of our time get the recognition they deserve. This medal will do just that.

"Our troops... have conducted over 1,500 strikes against Daesh terrorist targets and helped train nearly 60,000 Iraqi security forces.

"The campaign is not over but for those that have served, we rightly honour the critical role they have played in helping keep us safe."

Air Marshal Greg Bagwell, a former deputy commander of operations at the Royal Air Force, who oversaw the use of Reaper drones in Syria, said campaign medals were being defined by borders.

"That's a little 19th Century - the battle space today is a lot broader," he told BBC Radio Four's Today programme.

He said men and women were engaged in Operation Reaper for more than 1,000 days - not the 30 or 45 days involved in tours of duty.

They are "totally immersed" in the operation and it's demanding to maintain the levels of concentration to ensure "near-perfection every minute of every day", he added.

'Moral courage'

Colonel Richard Kemp, the former head of British forces in Afghanistan, said there was courage in conducting drone operations and taking human life from the relative safety of Lincolnshire, or wherever drone pilots might be.

"There's a moral courage in pressing that button, in executing a strike," he told Today.

"It can be more difficult to do that when you are very removed from the battlefield, and not in the intensity of battle."

Labour has called for recognition of servicemen and women fighting IS.

On his visit, Sir Michael met personnel from the Mercian Regiment, the Royal Engineers, the Intelligence Corps, and medical regiments at Erbil and Taji.

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