Best Defense

Heavy medal: We need to re-think how we recognize and define modern combat

On January 7th, 2016, the Department of Defense told the world that after a year of study, it has no idea how to define the word 'combat' for the 21st century, which is quite remarkable considering the volume and variety of combat activities it oversees.

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By Capt. Michael W. Byrnes, USAF
Best Defense guest respondent

On January 7th, 2016, the Department of Defense told the world that after a year of study, it has no idea how to define the word “combat” for the 21st century, which is quite remarkable considering the volume and variety of combat activities it oversees.

The Pentagon announced the results of an assessment of rules governing military medals that “focused on combat and valor recognition.” DoD made modest but unenforceable progress reeling-in issuance of Bronze Star Medals, but failed, intellectually and practically, to answer sticky issues like how to properly recognize lethal acts in war from remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) crews, or reward excellence in offensive cyberwarfare. Previously, Secretary Panetta’s proposed Distinguished Warfare Medal, designed to answer the same questions, ignited a storm of controversy. Secretary Hagel, with the advice of the Joint Chiefs, cancelled it in favor of what DoD just announced: devices — clasps that attach to existing medals explaining special conditions under which an award was made.

Some concluded “drone operators” would have new honors extended to them, but DoD’s actual position is to restrict them “to non-combat performance awards,” and then allow them to attach an “R” (remote) device to such medals. Those awards are the same ones made for exceptional administrative work, for which all airmen, including Predator and Reaper crews, are already eligible, making the “R” confusing and irrelevant. When Lt Gen Robert Otto, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, polled the combat wings for feedback, he received a resounding “this is detrimental and demotivating.” Its RPA enterprise is already in deep crisis, with poor retention of officers and even worse for enlisted sensor operators. Central to their decisions to leave, many report, is service culture fundamentally disrespecting their work, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) just said, “What you do isn’t combat,” yet failed to justify its answer to a critically important underlying question: what is combat?

Whereas Scott Beauchamp explored the notion of redefining heroism, this article suggests we leave that concept intact and instead recognize that our definition and understanding of the word “combat” is overloaded. Deconstructing it can help sort out complex thoughts and feelings, allowing us to assess what value devices would or would not add, and how existing legal criteria for military recognition can intrinsically find appropriate solutions. Is combat:

  1. The violence to which we subject the enemy?
  2. The enemy’s potential violence to which we are subject?
  3. Are both components needed to complete the definition?

The rush for some to quickly answer “Yes” to all three is complicated by related questions:

  • Should we design our technologies and build our battle plans to make American service members more or less subject to the enemy’s potential for violence in war?
  • Exactly how much risk is required to call it combat, and who has the right to decide?

These questions have an obvious aim of separating pragmatism from romanticism when evaluating combat. True nobility in warfare is to wage it at a negotiating table, but failing that, even powers that care deeply about Jus in Bello do not seek “fair” fights, but to hold the enemy at threat and prevent them from doing the same in return — asymmetric advantage. DoD’s definition of “combat conditions,” strangely, only specifies (unquantified) subjection to violence, as if encouraging risk-taking over victory-seeking. Rational combatants are unconcerned, for example, whether a pilot drops a bomb from a Viper (F-16) or a Reaper (MQ-9), so long as the act attain military objectives.

Yet our feelings about combat are equally real. Acts of bravery inspire us in a special way, and we should reserve special honor for such nobility. By deconstructing combat, we can look more openly at the word and see room for both our rational pragmatism and our reverence for heroism. Let us then formally define a term of “remote combat” and say that as a highly asymmetric approach to present-day conflict it often fulfills the first clause of classical combat and excels at negating the second, at least physically. The style might not provide asymmetric safety in future conflicts, for example ones fought with hypersonic weapons. DoD’s true interest in remote operations, however, was never to reduce risk to operators, but to reduce costs from troop deployments. Yet the idea sparked an incidental discovery: affordable persistent airpower. That is, the option for persistent defense of small ground force elements spread over large geographic areas (what the Army wants for counterinsurgency), and a novel concept of persistent attack against elusive opponents (what Special Operations Forces [SOF] want for a variety of reasons). The latter is a far more viciously calculating design than most people apprehend in debating aircraft like Predator, and requires combined aviation and high technology skills to succeed.

The “video game” perception about Predator and Reaper has been repeatedly debunked, and both anecdotal and formal research show there is no psychological distance between the crews and the act of killing. In fact, there are additional stressors of stalking, killing, and lingering like a wolf at the kill site for hours. The planes do not fly themselves, and the experience is completely unrelated to “atmospheric satellites” like the RQ-4 Global Hawk. What we value from these crews is not physical bravery, but tactical skill. Predator/Reaper formation strike packages are among the most sophisticated mechanisms for massing precision firepower in the history of aviation. One mistake from anyone on the team could result in mission failure, so the same level of leadership, skill, and adaptability found in any other form of tactical flying is essential in today’s example of remote combat.

Thus, remote combat is not support to combat action, as OSD claimed, but a manifestation of dynamic symmetry through history: America “one-upped” the asymmetry of terrorism with asymmetric, lethal persistence. Today, the majority of Reaper crews do not work in support of forward-deployed ground teams. Instead, they are America’s combat reach and have become an often a thin-gray-line tasked with “no-fail” missions to keep violent extremists in check on this planet. When we assume that use of remote methods can only constitute “lesser included acts” or a “contribution to combat,” we disregard what these airmen actually accomplish, likely because we lacked the vocabulary to describe it. The error communicates as disrespect, symptomatic of why so many of these crews depart the service.

The solution for DoD’s conundrum is remarkably simple: use existing legal criteria assigned to each award to define exactly which medals are used to honor bravery and which are used to honor displays of brilliant skill… in combat. In practical terms, that means the Medal of Honor, the Air Force, Navy, and Distinguished Service Crosses, and Silver and Bronze Stars apply to classically understood combat, but not to remote combat. Assignment to Predator or Reaper, however, does not bind one to a “remote only” status: crews do deploy to hostile areas to fly a number of their sorties. When the airfield is attacked, their subjection to enemy fire is as significant as anyone else experiences on the ground. In perspective to other deployed aircrew, their personal risk level is clearly much lower than A-10 pilots strafing at low altitude, for example, but often much higher than many Air Force crews orbiting high above in uncontested skies. When deployed Reaper crews find their positions fired upon, they continue to fly their aircraft to locate and counterattack the enemy, rather than terminating the link and taking shelter in designated bunkers as all other ground personnel are directed to do. Defeating the threat allows the airfield to resume operations and, in some cases, enabled safe recovery of fuel-starved fighters trying to land. Putting mission and team before one’s own safety describes fully classical combat: both sides are in each other’s weapons ranges, and the short-reach datalink between crew and aircraft becomes irrelevant. Still, the Air Force maintains silent prohibitions against combat recognition for these airmen based on their association with Predator/Reaper, regardless of demonstrated skill or courage. OSD’s announcement only amplifies confusion.

A central point of contention is that both classical and remote acts can and do apply to the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Both, by their definitions, may be awarded for either heroism or extraordinary achievement in combat. The only arguments for barring remotely located crews from the award for achievement are to insist that either the act isn’t “participation in aerial flight,” or that the second clause of combat — subjection to enemy action — is absolutely essential in the context of these awards. The former neglects the act of participating in aerial flight in observing only the location of the crew and ignoring that they maintain identical responsibilities for safe and effective operation of their aircraft. The latter is a dubious position given that many traditional aircrew who earned the same honors they passively deny these airmen did so while operating against weak-to-nonexistent air defenses, even taking credit for the work of Predator crews.

Remote combat is real to the enemy in a physical sense, and real to the crews in a psychological one. Its networked nature takes “mutual support,” a hallmark of massed formations of aircraft, to a new level. Few other pilots can say they’ve commanded a dozen aircraft in a strike that expended twenty precision weapons, picked off every enemy in a congested target area, caused zero civilian casualties, and did it all in three minutes. Those outcomes depend on adaptations of the same essential skillsets used to turn any other airplane into a weapon of war, and the exemplary displays of those skills deserve the same achievement-based recognition as their peers. The definitions of awards already sort out which require brave heroics and which are appropriate to recognize skilled displays of tactical aviation, so long as we understand that remote combat is distinct but not separate from all other forms of combat. If that unification is intuitively difficult, then using a device like DoD’s proposed “C” (Combat) mark can distinguish risk exposure during classical combat modes. Historically, the first award of the Distinguished Flying Cross had nothing to do with combat: it was presented to Charles Lindbergh for his trans-Atlantic flight. First-rate aviation skill exists in every platform in the US Air Force, especially Predator and Reaper where crews are eager to prove themselves to the world.

One officer from the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) shared that in the past two years there has been a sharply increasing preference for Predator and Reaper in lieu of fighters they once relied upon. “SOF folks are maybe the most pragmatic people in the world — we really, really don’t care where the weapon comes from as long as it’s done right. The RPAs have been raising their standards and giving us more flexibility than we ever had before. It all just comes down to pK (Probability of Kill). We understand [fighters] have to train for a variety of tasks, but we’ve got national-level, no-fail missions, and there’s no margin for sentimentality. There’s still a strong role for the fast movers, but more and more, we find there are shots only the Reaper can take,” the officer explained. In a world where Predator and Reaper are tactically outperforming fighters in America’s most serious covert and clandestine operations, and where their pilot numbers are projected to double in the next two years, remote combat is clearly not going away. We must understand what it is and how it relates to traditional notions of combat. By the time surge production is complete, there will be over 2,000 Reaper pilots in USAF, contrasted to about 2,300 pilots in all other fighter types combined. Recognizing their achievements as legitimate combat aviation accomplishments, with medals once worn only by other types of pilots, need not diminish anyone’s merit, bravery, or honor if we apply the criteria already established for each medal — device or not — understanding that combat is lawful application of martial violence in any form, regardless of its degree of asymmetric advantage.

Michael Byrnes is an experienced MQ-9 Instructor Pilot and began his career as an enlisted airman in aircraft maintenance. This article represents his personal opinions, which are not necessarily those of the MQ-9, the U.S. Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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