Articles

The Air Force is updating its awards to recognize drone pilots and hackers

US airmen tasked with jobs like surveillance and cyber operations have a growing role on the battlefield, even though they are often physically distant from it.


To ensure that kind of work is recognized, the Air Force has introduced new hardware for its service men and women.

"As the impact of remote operations on combat continues to increase, the necessity of ensuring those actions are distinctly recognized grows," Defense Department officials said in a memo published on January 7, 2016.

Now the Air Force has released criteria for new devices that signify different roles in military awards: "V" for valor, "C" for combat, and "R" for remote.

The "R" device "was established to distinguish that an award was earned for direct hands-on employment of a weapon system that had a direct and immediate impact on a combat or military operation," the Air Force said in a release.

The US Air Force's 'V,' 'C,' and 'R' devices. Photo courtesy of USAF.

This refers to work done anywhere, as long as it doesn't expose the service member to personal danger or put them at significant risk of personal danger. The new device would recognize the actions of drone pilots, cyber operators, and other airmen carrying out combat operations far from the battlefield.

"These members create direct combat effects that lead to strategic outcomes and deliver lethal force, while physically located outside the combat area," said Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services.

The "V" device denotes "unambiguous and distinctive recognition of distinguished acts of combat heroism," while the "C" device was created to award airmen and women who perform "meritoriously under the most difficult combat conditions."

While the devices were unveiled this week, they can be rewarded retroactively to January 2016, when the defense secretary established them.

The US military's increasingly reliance on drones has created more demand for drone operators.

Drone operators remotely fly an MQ-1 Predator aircraft, October 22, 2013. Photo courtesy of USAF.

The service, which is straining under a personnel shortage, has introduced a new tiered bonus system to retain personnel, and drone pilots were among those in highest demand.

They, along with fighter pilots, are slated to get the highest maximum bonus of $35,000 a year.

Despite their distance from the battlefield, drone pilots' duties in US campaigns throughout the Middle East and elsewhere has put them under some of the same strain faced by personnel who are forward deployed.

A 2013 study by researchers with the Defense Department found that drone pilots faced mental-health issues like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as those who flew manned aircraft over places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some pilots have spoken of the "psychological gymnastics" they adopt to deal with the mental and emotional impact of killing remotely.

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