Coalition Airstrike vs Daesh Iraq 25.05.16

The head of the Royal Air Force has said he is delighted Reaper drone crews will be recognised with the Operation Shader medal for their contribution to eradicating Islamic State.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said there have been some personnel working on the campaign continuously since the UK's involvement began four years ago.

His comments come as the first batch of the Operation Shader medals were presented to individuals from all three services on Wednesday, and the Defence Secretary confirmed the widening of the eligibility criteria.

Air Chief Marshal Hillier said Reaper crews, although not deployed to areas where they are exposed to physical danger, have put in a "huge effort".

He said: "It is not, for the Reaper crews, some remote support operations - they are doing operations, they are engaged in active operations every minute or every day.

"I am just delighted that we are having that opportunity to properly recognise their contribution to this campaign."

Traditionally, medals are awarded based on the level of risk faced by the individual, with this considered or defined as being exposed to physical danger.

Reaper drone pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence co-ordinators are based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire where they operate the unmanned air vehicles.

A Typhoon pilot, who cannot be identified for security reasons, said receiving the Operation Shader medal is "pretty special", adding: "But equally we are doing our job."

Deployed early on in the Typhoon detachment that now forms part of Operation Shader, the pilot said they had been involved in 30 of the sorties during their tour, with each one spanning between six to eight hours.

Of the announcement that Reaper drone operators will also receive the Operation Shader medal, the pilot said their job is very different to the one the Typhoon force undertake.

The pilot said: "In some ways it is identical, in some way it is totally different. The reason I say it is different is that I think they have it a lot harder.

"What people don't realise is the emotional investment they end up having in it. They will watch a target for weeks on end and they will understand every part of that target's life.

"You can't not become emotionally involved - we need to give those boys and girls a lot more credit that I think people are giving them."

Lt Cdr Lindsey Waudby (right) with the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson (left) after being presented with her new Operational Service Medal at a ceremony at the Ministry of Defence building in London today 
Lt Cdr Lindsey Waudby (right) with the Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson (left) after being presented with her new Operational Service Medal at a ceremony at the Ministry of Defence building in London today. 

British personnel from all three services who tackled Daesh will be awarded the new operational medal. It is the first Operational Service Medal to be created since 2003 and has its own distinct ribbon and clasp.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "The campaign against Daesh is one that our Armed Forces can be extremely proud of.

"I am pleased that today those who have bravely fought against such untold evil will get the recognition they deserve.

"Reflecting the changing nature of warfare I am pleased to announce that the medal will now recognise those making a vital contribution to Op Shader from outside the conventional area of Operations, for example those Reaper pilots taking life and death decisions from back here in the UK."

RAF-Reaper

During the campaign to destroy the extremists in Iraq and Syria drones have been used to carry out strikes, gather intelligence and conduct surveillance.

This often involves weeks of monitoring individuals and then once a strike has been executed, another vast amount of time is spent ensuring it was successful.

ACM Hillier said the strain and pressure on individuals involved in operations has to be measured in different ways.

He added: "Physical risk is one part of it, but there is also the mental resilience, the endurance and sustainment needed for people who have been effectively deployed on operations for years.

"Most of defence do operations on an episodic basis, so maybe for six months or a year at a time, but the Reaper force that is all they do for all of the time.

"So for some people... the four years that Operation Shader has been running, there have been people who have been doing that for every working day for four years.

"That is what we are recognising here."

With operators and pilots having to closely follow individuals, asked whether this has an impact on their mental health, ACM Hillier said they monitor "extremely closely for the risk of psychological harm".

"They do see some quite stressful things," he said.

"So we have the opportunity for counselling, we have that squadron environment where we look after each other - so a full support network exists within that.

"We need to make sure we give people enough time to reflect so we don't end up with them getting fatigued - we have the mechanisms in place.

"But I have to say that giving medallic recognition - something they can put on the chest of their uniform - it just says to them the organisation recognises my contribution.

"That is a really important thing.

"I know that in 13 and 39 squadron (who operate the Reapers from RAF Waddington)... when they get this news it will be a great surprise, it will be great news to them and really buoy them up."

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