Reaper Drone CREDIT Sergeant Ross Tilly/MoD

COMMENT: The Duty Of Care Around Drone Warfare

"Drone pilots wage an 'asymmetric war' where there are stark differences in the strengths and strategies of the respective combatants."

Reaper Drone CREDIT Sergeant Ross Tilly/MoD

The Reaper entered RAF service in October 2007 (Picture: Crown Copyright).

By Ahmed Al-Nahhas, Partner in the Military Claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp

Technological advancements have for millennia gone hand-in-hand with armed conflict.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of all invention, and there is no greater necessity than survival itself. History is riddled with examples, good and bad. 

These days we may have an ultrasound scan at a hospital as part of a routine medical check-up, but few might appreciate that this technology was largely developed for military use, for example, to help engineers scan for cracks in tank armour during the Second World War. 

In the past two decades, medics in Iraq and Afghanistan - who were responsible for saving the gravely injured victims if IEDs - developed techniques which are being used today in the emergency rooms of hospitals across the country.

That’s not to mention the advancements in bandages, tourniquets and prosthetics which resulted from these more recent conflicts. 

The way we wage war has also changed.

RAF Reaper drone squadrons based both in the US and the UK consist of highly-trained pilots and operators who carry out remote strikes on targets many hundreds of miles away.

RAF Reaper UAV (MoD Handout)
The aircraft itself is unmanned, but is at all times under the control of RAF aircrew (Picture: MoD).

But this advancement of technology, the ability to cause devastation at such a remove, has also led to challenging questions being posed to our service personnel and those responsible for their care and wellbeing.

There has been growing concern about the mental health of drone pilots, particularly in the US, where initial studies have shown high levels of stress and dissatisfaction amongst these specialist personnel.

Service personnel are trained and encouraged to live and fight by standards, including fairness in combat.

Drone pilots wage an 'asymmetric war' where there are stark differences in the strengths and strategies of the respective combatants.

It can often involve 'collateral damage' of civilians, which has been the subject of much debate and encouraged legislators to seek to control the use of this method of warfare.

This leaves drone pilots in an unenviable position.

They are no doubt eager to carry out their duty and utilise their training, but they also face ethical questions and concerns which may cause doubt, anxiety, stress and depression.

Protector RG Mk.1 (Picture: RAF).
The Protector RG Mk.1 is a remotely piloted combat aircraft (Picture: RAF).

Some academics have indicated that drone pilots might experience higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than previously recognised.

RAF chaplains are specifically trained to offer pastoral care to drone pilots and operators.

This should be commended; the Ministry of Defence owes a duty of care to service personnel and the first step to fulfilling that duty involves understanding the problem.

Drone warfare has become a tool of the modern battlefield and the debate over its use rages on.

Whether you agree morally with it or not, what is clear is that research is desperately needed to understand the special pressures that symmetric warfare poses to the mental health of our service personnel.