WASHINGTON: For years, the military’s drone pilots have toiled in obscurity from windowless rooms at bases in suburban America, viewed by some in the armed forces more as video game players than as warriors.
But in a reflection of their increasingly important role under President Obama, the drone operators will now be eligible for military honours akin to those given to pilots who flew over the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Department on Thursday is scheduled to announce that it has created a designation to recognise service members who had a direct effect on combat operations even though they were operating remotely, Pentagon officials said. Drone pilots are likely to receive many of the awards, but they may also be given to operators who launch cyberattacks.
“It’s way past time,” said David A Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who pushed the military to embrace drones. “People should be acknowledged and rewarded for their contributions to accomplishing security objections regardless of where they are located.”
Current and former military officials had been deeply divided about whether to recognise the drone pilots. An initial Pentagon plan in 2013 to honour them with a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” was criticised by some veterans’ groups, which feared that the award would rank higher than combat medals like the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars sent a letter to Obama expressing its objections to the proposed medal. Some veterans have derided such recognition as a “geek cross.” Defense Secretary Leon E Panetta announced the planned medal during his final days at the Pentagon in 2013.
But the proposal was scuttled by his successor, Chuck Hagel, amid the fury from the veterans’ groups.
The Pentagon’s efforts to recognise service members who operate from afar reflect the changing nature of how the military uses force. With the American public weary of war, Obama has relied on drones as the military has moved toward a leaner footprint in its engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
“As the impact of remote operations on combat continues to increase, the necessity of ensuring those actions are distinctly recognised grows,” said a Pentagon document outlining changes to how the military gives awards and other decorations.
The use of drones has been widely credited with diminishing al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. But civilians have also died in drone attacks, fueling anger toward the United States among Muslims across the Middle East.
The military has also increased its use of cyberweapons. In 2010, a cyberattack took out nearly 1,000 centrifuges that Iran had been using to purify uranium.
The new awards, a Pentagon official said, will allow the military to recognise service members who operate other technology that will be developed in the future as military tactics evolve.
The Pentagon is also planning to make changes that officials hope will shorten the time that it takes to award the Medal of Honour, and to standardise what define “acts of combat valor.”
Along with those changes, Defense Secretary Ashton B Carter is scheduled to announce a review of how Silver Star and Service Cross medals have been awarded for combat in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The review will examine whether the standards for earning those medals have remained the same throughout the years since the wars began, and it could result in upgrades for some service members.
According to the Pentagon, the first seven Medal of Honor awards for service in Iraq and Afghanistan were given to those who had died. But since 2010, all 10 people who have received the Medal of Honour have been living at the time it was awarded.
Some commanders have been more willing to upgrade their recommendations for medals as the wars dragged on, according to Pentagon officials. So some service members could receive upgraded honours for actions that took place early in those conflicts.