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Stateside Air Force drone pilots can now log combat time for overseas flights

Airmen flying remotely piloted aircraft will now be able to log combat hours while flying in hostile airspace, no matter where they are physically located, even if it's a base in the continental U.S., the Air Force announced Monday.

Previously, RPA operators logged "combat support time."

It's part of a series of initiatives designed to change the career field and bolster a beleaguered and stressed workforce.

"The airmen who perform this essential mission do a phenomenal job, but we learned from the RPA pilots, sensor operators and their leaders that these airmen are under significant stress from an unrelenting pace of operations," Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement. "These policy changes are steps toward addressing issues highlighted by RPA operators in the field."

The changes came following a review by Air Combat Command that looked into how to reduce stress on RPA airmen.

Under the new initiative, RPA aircrews will be allowed to log combat time if their aircraft is flying in hostile territory, no matter where the crew is actually operating the drone from. Previously, RPA operators logged "combat support time."

According to information provided to Air Force Times by the Air Force, the change in language is a reflection that the aircraft may be exposed to enemy fire;, as opposed to a combat support role which is defined as action "by aircraft against an enemy ... that operate outside the designated hostile airspace, where there is no risk of exposure to hostile fire."

However the change will not affect the pay for RPA operators, nor result in any automatic bonuses, said Capt. Trisha Guillebeau, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Air Force Times. The change to logging combat hours also will not impact the medals process, she said.

Part of ACC's effort to "normalize and improve operations as a whole in the RPA community...includes properly recognizing our RPA aircrews' contribution to combat operations," Guillebeau said. "Logging combat flight time similarly to other pilots and in accordance with the guidelines established in the regulations provides recognition of the burdens our airmen bear in providing combat effects for joint warfighters around the world."

The Air Force is also re-designating eight reconnaissance squadrons as attack squadrons. The change is due in part to the service's plans preparing to retire the current MQ-1 Predator and move all airmen over to the MQ-9 Reaper, and also in recognition of the fact that intelligence-gathering remotely piloted aircraft regularly carry out airstrikes.

The re-naming will affect an estimated 700 enlisted airmen and 600 officers at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Whiteman AFB, Missouri; and Creech AFB, Nevada, the service said.

"The cost of the re-designation is minimal, mostly affecting signs, stationary and other local items that display the unit's name or emblem," according to the press release said.

"Aerial warfare continues to evolve," said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff. "Our great RPA airmen are leading that change. They are in the fight every day. These policy changes recognize the burdens they bear in providing combat effects for joint warfighters around the world."

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