The Wrong Side of History
In 1346, at the Battle of Crécy, the English army under the command of King Edward III assumed a defensive posture against a French army that outnumbered the English forces by over 4,000 men. Armed with Welsh longbows and using them for the first time in a major engagement, Edward’s forces managed to repel the charge of the French knights not once but sixteen times. By the time the sun had set, Edward’s army had sustained a few hundred losses, but the French, fighting as their fathers had, lost 1,200 cavalry and 12,000 soldiers. The day was dominated by Edward’s longbowmen who delivered punishing effects to the battlefield from relative comfort behind the English infantry, well beyond the reach of the French swords, lances, and crossbows. In the face of such lopsided losses, the French king ordered a full retreat relinquishing the battlefield to the English and marking the dawn of a new era. In the space of one day, this new weapon and the men employing it upended the medieval way of war and made the armored knight largely irrelevant.
While some nations adapted more quickly to this new way of warfare than others, eventually all came to see that the old ways were gone. History is full of examples of new technology or tactics giving an immense strategic advantage to the first armies to adopt them. From the crossbow to the airplane, there have always been visionaries who embrace technological change and those who doggedly defend the supremacy of the old ways. Both cases are a natural part of the human condition, but it has always been those who fail to wholly integrate new technologies into their militaries that have found themselves on the wrong side of history as the French king did that day at the Battle of Crécy.
A New Scarlet Letter
In January of 2016, the Secretary of Defense authorized the creation of “C” and “R” devices to be affixed to decorations such as the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross because “[a]s the impact of remote operations on combat increases, it has become important to recognize those actions.” I could not agree more; it is absolutely vital that the contributions of personnel employing remotely piloted aircraft be acknowledged with appropriate military decorations. However, another way to interpret the Air Force’s stance is that it is “important to acknowledge that the actions warranting the awarding of this decoration are diminished because the recipient didn’t risk his or her life.” The motivations behind these devices is transparent and this whitewashing is absurd. These devices have been authorized to caveat the actions of remote warriors and to ensure the preeminence of traditional warfighters. Make no mistake, affixing a scarlet “R” to the awards and decorations of RPA aircrew furthers the divide between traditional and remote weapons systems and ensures that the Department of Defense ends up on the wrong side of history.
With safety from enemy threats ensured, what is the difference between 20,000 feet and 20,000 miles?
Let me clarify what increasing impact means. In 2016, RPAs flew more combat hours and provided more real-time imagery than all other manned aircraft combined. They expended 1,200% more weapons than they did in 2010. In counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism engagements like those that make up the vast majority of military efforts today, RPAs are the dominant force unleashing punishing effects on the enemy from well beyond the enemy’s reach. RPAs are the new longbow. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that the aircrew is not in the aircraft that allows remote aircraft to conduct missions that cannot be conducted by traditional aircraft. After the shoot down of a Syrian Su-22 in June of this year, it was RPAs that continued to provide desperately needed air support to allied ground forces when manned assets were politically unable due to the threat of enemy surface-to-air missile systems. And yet it has been decided that any decorations resulting from such support should come with an asterisk.
The problem, as many traditionalists see it, is that a distinction needs to be drawn between remote and manned aviation in order to guard the honor of the latter. The purpose of developing military technology is to enhance asymmetry on the battlefield; militaries are not in the business of fighting fair. Before each fight, we do not make sure the scales are evenly balanced. We did not ship half of our F-35s to ISIS so that we could have a gentlemanly duel in the sky. Instead, we seek to reduce risk to our forces while increasing the threat to the enemy. It should be acknowledged that RPAs, like our manned brethren, engage the enemy from the comfort of total air supremacy. With safety from enemy threats ensured, what is the difference between 20,000 feet and 20,000 miles? Far more men and women have lost their lives driving to and from Creech AFB than the number of American fighter pilots that have been lost to hostile fire since the Predator’s first combat sortie (zero). And with but one air-to-air kill in 18 years, we should stop holding onto the image of mounted knights charging headlong into enemy lines and acknowledge that the distinction in awarding these decorations is whether a person has demonstrated exceptionally meritorious conduct in service to the United States or distinguished themselves by extraordinary achievement, not whether they risked their life.
When friendly forces are under fire, the decisive actions of responding aircrew can be the difference between life and death. Any preference for manned assets over remote represents a tremendous shortfall in a ground force’s understanding of what RPAs bring to the fight. This outmoded line of thinking discounts the incredible loiter time and battlespace awareness that remotely piloted aircraft provide. Would ground forces rather have a plane that can get to them rapidly or one that was already overhead? A well-placed Hellfire right now is preferable to an A-10 strafe in 45 minutes. When an enemy AAA battery is identified, or Scud missile is destroyed, or HVI is removed from the battlefield, is the value of that action diminished because the responsible aircrew was never in danger? If an MQ-9 pilot makes a mistake resulting in fratricide, does this too mean less than it would to a manned pilot? Is the RPA aircrew less devastated because they weren’t actually overhead and only had to watch every horrible detail in high definition? I can assure you that they are not. We do not direct robot aircraft and we do not manage their missions; we have direct control of the aircraft, weapons, and payload at all times just as any F-16 or A-10 pilot does. Our action or inaction means life or death for friendly forces in exactly the same manner as our manned teammates.
One Team, One Fight
The responsibility entrusted to RPA pilots and sensor operators is the same as that in the manned community and yet the DoD diminishes the accomplishments of the former. RPA aircrew should be eligible for all awards and decorations for which conspicuous risk of life is not an established factor. I am not arguing that RPA crews should be awarded the Medal of Honor, the standard for which having long been extreme risk to life above and beyond the call of duty. I am arguing that all awards for which the “R” device can be awarded should be open to all aircrew bringing direct effects to the battlefield without these new caveats. The “V” device, a symbol of valorous action under great personal threat to life, already suffices to elevate actions occurring during combat. Eliminate this pointless “C” and “R” distinction. These devices stigmatize the contributions of RPA aircrews and send the message that RPA pilots and sensor operators are considered second class warfighters just as the longbowman was so long ago.
No good came from bickering over valor or prominence then and no good will come of it now. The Army, Marine Corps, and veterans groups responsible for these new devices should be more focused on broadening their understanding of modern airpower and less focused on defending the old guard. To continue along this path is an affront to the men and women of the RPA community who are making the single largest impact in modern air warfare and who have proven their dedication to keeping ground forces from harm. Like the longbow, remote warfare is here to stay until such time that some new way of war emerges to replace it. I’m sure we’ll bicker about that, too.
About the Author
Capt Alexander R. Hess is a Flight Commander and MQ-9 instructor pilot. He is responsible for training new MQ-9 pilots for combat roles at the largest formal training unit in the United States Air Force. Prior to his current position, Capt. Hess was an MQ-9 instructor pilot assigned to the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron where he tallied more than 2,100 combat support hours.