US drone pilots can get military honours

An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft flying overhead during a training mission, on May 13, 2013 in Nevada.
An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft flying overhead during a training mission, on May 13, 2013 in Nevada. PHOTO: AFP

They now qualify for awards akin to those given to pilots who flew in battlefields

WASHINGTON • For years, the United States 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 Barack 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 Defence Department was scheduled to announce yesterday 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 these may also be given to operators who launch cyber attacks.

"It's way past time," said retired three-star air force general David Deptula, who pushed the military to embrace drones. "People should be acknowledged and rewarded for their contributions to accomplishing security objectives 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 the award would rank higher than combat medals such as the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars sent a letter to Mr Obama, expressing its objections to the proposed medal. Some veterans have derided such recognition as a "geek cross".

Defence Secretary Leon 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 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, Mr Obama has relied on drones as the military has moved towards a leaner footprint in its engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The use of drones has been widely credited with diminishing Al- Qaeda and other terrorist groups. But civilians have also died in drone attacks, fuelling anger towards the US among Muslims across the Middle East.

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.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2016, with the headline 'US drone pilots can get military honours'. Print Edition | Subscribe