The Cable

Pentagon’s Drone Pilots Get a Nod, but No Medals

The Defense Department has decided to offer pins to drone pilots, but medals still elude the unmanned crews.

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08:  U.S. Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell pilots an MQ-9 Reaper on a training mission from a ground control station August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08: U.S. Air Force Maj. Casey Tidgewell pilots an MQ-9 Reaper on a training mission from a ground control station August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

For the past decade, drone pilots have played a central role in U.S. efforts to target extremists and track their shadowy leaders across the Middle East and Africa. Now the Pentagon wants to acknowledge their contributions. But don’t expect them to get a medal for it.

After years of contentious debate, the Defense Department has finally decided it won’t issue new medals to drone pilots or cyber-technicians who wage war from air-conditioned pods nestled near American strip malls. Instead, the Pentagon plans to give what amounts to pins to attach to non-combat medals awarded for earlier action.

Defense officials have struggled for years with how to recognize the contributions of troops who operate thousands of miles from the front lines but still impact the battlefield. In this new age of war by remote control, the rules are still being written, but old ways of deciding who is a combatant — and who isn’t — die hard.

In a document announcing the new award, the Defense Department explained that “as the impact of remote operations on combat continues to increase, the necessity of ensuring those actions are distinctly recognized grows.” As a result, an “R” device — to signify service done remotely, outside the war zone — has been designed to be attached to “non-combat performance awards to specifically recognize remote but direct impact on combat operations,” according to the document.

At the same time, a second new “C” award — for combat — is being rolled out to attach to earlier medals, but it will only be given to troops who have otherwise participated in combat.

The debate over giving new awards to drone pilots and cyber-troops came to a head in 2013, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta created a Distinguished Warfare Medal for “extraordinary achievement” that did not require the recipient to have been downrange for combat.

Angry veterans groups quickly objected that the new award would rank higher than the Bronze Star, which requires “heroic or meritorious achievement or service” to win.

Following the outcry, Panetta’s successor, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, scuttled the plan two months later while announcing a general review of all medals and citations awarded by the Pentagon.

The result of that study was released Thursday and includes a huge new Pentagon initiative to review more than 1,000 medals the military has awarded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the plan, the armed services will reexamine awards for distinguished service, Navy and Air Force Crosses, and Silver Stars for possible upgrade to the Medal of Honor.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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