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UK military drone operators face long-term moral and psychological injuries

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
British drone operators work long hours from isolated metal shipping containers, thousands of miles away from their targets

Years of conducting lethal drone operations from long distances is beginning to take its toll on the UK’s drone operators, who tend to be young men in their early 20s.

The Times newspaper is reporting that the Independent Medical Expert Group (IMEC) has conducted deep research into the subject and concluded that drone operators risk “moral” injuries as a result of the nature of their work.

The IMEC, which advises the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), was commissioned by the government to undertake the research.

However, in an unusual twist, the Times Defence editor, Lucy Fisher, tweeted that the Royal Air Force (RAF - which operates the UK's drone squadrons) “strongly” contests the research’s findings.

The RAF’s apparent rejection of the MoD-commissioned report’s findings is even more strange considering that another piece of research (commissioned in part by the RAF itself) from nearly four years ago yielded similar findings.

Peter Lee, an academic at Portsmouth University and a former RAF chaplain, was given unprecedented access to two RAF Reaper squadrons focused on targets in Afghanistan.

Lee concluded that young drone operators were subjected to “exhaustion” and “mental stress” as a result of fighting remote wars from the safety of their metal shipping containers at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

The latest report by the IMEC – which validates Lee’s pioneering research – gives strong indications as to the long-term moral and psychological costs of Britain’s decision to fight covert wars from a distance of several thousand miles.

The stress and moral decay of the job is aggravated by the fact that on many occasions drone operators end up killing innocent civilians who happen to be going about their business in close proximity to designated targets.

Risks and uncertainty notwithstanding, the consensus amongst military aviation experts is that the RAF is unlikely to diverge from the insidious trajectory of swapping manned fixed-wing aircraft for unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones.

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