In Depth

Do drone operators deserve military medals?

UK considers bravery awards for those working outside the 'battle space'

British drone pilots could be given controversial new medals for bravery in the conflict against Islamic State following a government review of honours.

 Medals are now awarded for rigour and risk, with risk defined as being “physically exposed to danger”, says the BBC.

But Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon says there will be a review of how servicemen and women are recognised for contributions to UK operations “outside the battle space”.

During a visit to British troops in Iraq, Fallon 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.”

‘Nintendo medal’

But do drone operators deserve the same honours as those working on the front line?

The question was asked in 2013, when the US army announced its short-lived Distinguished Warfare Medal - which was derisively known as the “Nintendo medal” - for those involved in drone operations.

The medal was scrapped when 39 members of the House of Representatives declared it a “disservice” to those wounded or killed in combat. But in January 2016, the US military debuted an ‘R’ device that can be affixed to pre-existing awards to recognise the remote but direct impact on combat operations.

“The objections to medals honoring drone pilots stem primarily from the widely held belief that it is cowardly to use remotely operated vehicles in war,” says Salon’s Jamie Holmes.

Retired colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that there was courage involved in operating drones: “There is a matter of life and death, there is moral courage to be made in pressing that button.”

Kemp also noted that officers working in London’s Ministry of Defence already receive medals for significant contributions to an operation’s success, without ever seeing action.

“Minimal risk”

But should risk be a factor in choosing to award a medal? 

Research suggests that drone pilots  - including those who operate drones from bases thousands of miles away, are just as susceptible to stress disorders as front-line combat troops.

A study in 2013 by the US Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. The intimacy of surveillance involved in drone operations is often greater than in some air force operations, the study said.

“Thoughtful insiders note that American Stealth bombers flying at 20,000 feet are barely ‘in combat’ - enemies seldom see them, let alone shoot them down. But still, conventional pilots are regarded very differently from drone operators,” says The Economist.

Those backing the medals say they could also help address, rather than exacerbate, a popular concern: that drones diminish accountability.

“Don’t we want drone pilots to be aware of their great responsibilities and to be rewarded for exercising them honorably?” Holmes asked.

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