The Air Force is mulling whether to award the Legion of Merit to drone pilots and sensor operators for the first time, fresh off awarding in July the first-ever "R" devices to drone crews for remote combat, Col. Julian Cheater, the commander of the 432nd Wing, said in an interview with Air Force Magazine.
Cheater’s wing is based out of Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, a major hub for MQ-9 Reaper drone operations.
Authorized in 2016, the “R" device was designed to recognize airmen who have participated in “hands-on employment of a weapons system that had direct and immediate impact on a combat operation,” according to the Air Force. Actions that qualify airmen for the device can be performed in any domain, including cyber, but do not expose the individual to hostile fire.
The July ceremony awarded "R" devices to drone pilots and sensor operators with Meritorious Service medals and Air Force Commendation medals.
However, some airstrikes conducted by drone operators may merit an award higher than those two, Cheater told Air Force Magazine. Components of the Air Force are now reviewing some past drone engagements for a possible Legion of Merit, the highest award authorized for an R device under Air Force regulations.
The Legion of Merit is generally awarded to officers at the rank of colonel and higher, or enlisted service members who are chief master sergeants. The drone community, though, is flush with second and first lieutenants flying combat strikes and perhaps younger airmen should be considered for the award, according to Cheater.
“The ones in my mind that may be worthy [involved] an extremely time-sensitive moving target, where significant friendlies are at risk, or the level of difficulty is extreme,” Cheater said.
Cheater told Air Force Magazine “there may be” a possibility of awarding Distinguished Flying Crosses with "R" devices one day.
"In the future, it may evolve to that point, but right now we are operating within the regulations available to us," he said.
The award decorations board plans to meet again next month for another round of "R" device awards, with “quite a few more” candidates this time around, according to Air Force Magazine.
The origins of the "R" device itself are controversial, and the possibility of incorporating more medals in the award process will likely meet some degree of push-back. In 2013, there was a proposal to create a Distinguished Warfare Medal and give it an order of precedence higher than some awards for valor in combat, despite being designed for service members who were not exposed to hostile fire.
After a hail of criticism from many combat veterans, who argued vehemently that the order of precedence was wholly inappropriate, the proposition was rejected.
Instead, Air Force officials created the "R" device to attach to lower-level medals. The “R” device is authorized for placement only on the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal and Air Force Achievement Medal.
Still, some view the struggle for an "R" device as a step toward recognizing the increased significance drone operations play in modern warfare.
“As the community grows, recognizing RPA Airmen achievements with the 'R' device is another step toward normalizing remote operations relative to other weapon systems,” according to a Creech Air Force Base press release.