British soldiers battling Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria have been honoured with a new campaign medal to recognise their valour, the Defence Secretary has announced.
And for the first time Royal Air Force drone pilots will also be eligible for the gallantry medals, despite being located thousands of miles away from the combat zone.
The new silver Operation Shader medal will recognise the “emotional investment” made by remote drone operators and reflects the changing nature of warfare.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson made the announcement on Wednesday as he presented medals to 36 sailors, soldiers and air crew.
He said a clasp version of the medal would also be given to UK-based drone pilots and intelligence co-ordinators.
The Operation Shader medal is the first operational service medal to be created since 2003.
Traditionally, operational service medals are awarded to individuals who have completed service in a specific campaign where they were exposed to physical danger.
But speaking at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall after the presentation ceremony, Williamson said: “It goes to show how important our armed forces are - it is about keeping Britain safe even if they’re taking action in the field many thousands of miles away.”
More than 1,400 British personnel are involved in the coalition formed in 2014 to defeat IS.
Personnel based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire fly armed and unmanned US-made Reaper drones used to carry out strikes and surveillance against IS.
The head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said Reaper crews, although not deployed to areas where they are exposed to physical danger, have put in a “huge effort”.
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.”
A Typhoon fighter pilot, who cannot be identified for security reasons, said receiving the Operation Shader medal is “pretty special”.
He added: “But equally we are doing our job.”
Deployed early on in the campaign with 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.
He said their job is very different to operating a drone while sat in a hangar thousands of miles away from the battlefield.
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.”
During the military campaign in Iraq and Syria RAF drones have been used to carry out strikes, gather intelligence and conduct surveillance.
The RAF has carried out more than 1,600 strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq since 2014 killing thousands of IS militants but also taking the life of at least one innocent civilian.
ACM Hillier said they monitor “extremely closely for the risk of psychological harm,” to drone operators.
“They do see some quite stressful things,” he said.
“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.”