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What counts as an aerial victory? Drones change the face of aerial combat

One of the greatest combat pilots in history was a German named Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the Red Baron, who shot down nearly 80 enemy aircraft in World War I. 

A lot has changed since the days of the Red Baron, as technology has rapidly advanced and unmanned drones have begun to fill the skies over conflict spots around the globe.

The proliferation of drones is changing the role and meaning of air combat and calling into question the U.S. military's policy on awarding aerial combat victories. Does it count if a pilot shoots down a drone? What if a remotely-piloted aircraft, manned by a pilot in Nevada, shoots down a fighter jet?

In just the past month, U.S. fighter jets have managed to score three aerial victories — two against Iranian Shahed 129 drones and one against a manned Syrian Su-22 fighter jet.

The last air-to-air kill by an American pilot was nearly 20 years ago in Bosnia, when Lt. Col Michael Geczy, flying an F-16, shot down a Serbian MiG-29 with an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.

No aces

Dogfighting and aerial combat have had a relatively non-existent role in the U.S. military since the 1990s.

During the first Gulf War, U.S. pilots scored 39 aerial combat victories. They scored another nine over Bosnia from 1994 to 1999, with zero U.S. aircraft being shot down during that period, according to research by Daniel Haulman, a historian for the Air Force.

In Vietnam, the kill ratio was far worse — for every plane shot down, the U.S. lost two, according to Haulman.

America's entrance into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s saw zero aerial combat — in part because Russian MiGs in Afghanistan at the time were largely inoperable, and the U.S. destroyed what few aircraft remained during the onset of the war. 

U.S. pilots decimated most of Iraq's air force during the first Gulf War, and few Iraqi pilots were brave enough to engage coalition aircraft during the 2003 invasion, according to Haulman's research.

To claim the coveted title of "ace," it takes at least five aerial combat victories, said a spokesperson for the Air Force.

And for nearly 20 years, it appeared the days of American dogfighting might be over, especially as unmanned aircraft began to fill the skies in America's wars overseas.

That period now appears to be over.

On June 8 and again on June 20, U.S. Air Force F-15Es shot down armed Iranian Shahed 129 drones over Syria — just northeast of the U.S. garrison at Tanf where special operations forces are training anti-ISIS fighters.

On June 18, a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet downed a manned Su-22 after it threatened Syrian Democratic Forces near the village of Ja-Din, which is south of the Tabqa dam near Raqqa.

Manned or unmanned?

The U.S. military's policy on awarding aerial combat credits is a topic that has not been discussed for some time.

"The Air Force may award an aerial victory credit to an Air Force pilot or crew that destroys an in-flight enemy aerial vehicle, manned or not, armed or not," an Air Force spokesperson said.

According to the spokesperson, that applies to drone pilots who shoot down manned or unmanned aircraft.

If a drone pilot shoots down five or more MiG-29s, though unlikely, that pilot would be eligible for five aerial combat victories and could be deemed a "flying ace."

Though the policy may be controversial to many, as the threat and size of drones vary greatly, it follows a historical trend. As technology has advanced, the definition of an "ace" has molded to fit the technology of the time.

In World War II, the term "observer ace" was coined for tail gunners like Michael Arooth of the 379th Bomb Group, who was credited with downing 17 aircraft but was not the pilot of the aircraft. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic feats.

In Vietnam, Capt. Charles DeBellevue, flying as a weapons system operator,  became the first Air Force navigator to earn ace status after shooting down six enemy aircraft. He was the highest scoring ace in Vietnam and received the Air Force Cross, the service's second-highest award for valor, for his actions.

The last U.S. flying ace was Capt. Richard Ritchie, who downed five enemy aircraft in Vietnam in an F-4 Phantom II.

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