The Defense Department continues to struggle with adapting to the changing realities of modern warfare, where personnel can effect the outcome of combat operations dramatically without ever really being where that war is taking place. Drone warfare is one area where the Pentagon, and especially the USAF, has struggled to adapt culturally, and this includes giving recognition where it is deserved.

One way of adapting was the Distinguished Warfare Medal: an award given to drone crews, cyber warfare specialists and other non-combat but essential “virtual warfare” personnel who have had an extraordinary impact on combat operations, but were not physically in a combat theater. But this idea, introduced by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2013, quickly became mired in controversy.

Some combat veterans were dismayed that this new medal was placed above the Bronze Star in precedence. It became nicknamed the “Nintendo Medal” in degrading fashion. As such, it died almost as soon as it was born, with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pulling it and ordering a review of alternatives. This review has taken years to complete.



This review has resulted in the recently “R” device, as in “remote,” that will be pinned to existing non-combat medals, such as the Meritorious Service Medal in a similar fashion of how a “V” is affixed to some combat medals to denote “valor.”

The criteria for receiving such a medal is for an individual to have had direct and exceptional impact on the battlefield, although they never were on said battlefield physically. In other words, someone who does a fantastic computer diagnostic on a MQ-9 Reaper drone’s brain to find a fault probably will not be able to qualify for the citation, but a drone operator who saves a special forces platoon from ambush and coordinates their escape from the enemy’s grasp maybe could.

The “R” device is also seen by the Pentagon as a flexible way to adapt to future remote combat roles and it is not just used exclusively for drone crews or cyber warfare specialists.

The question is, where the Distinguished Warfare Medal maybe went a step too far, does the R device not go far enough, and is it just another sign of the deep and debilitating cultural divide between an Air Force dominated by pilots and drones operators?

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Photos via USAF