- The Air Force has awarded its first “R” devices, recognising the work of crews that pilot unmanned aircraft far from the battlefield.
- The device was authorised in early 2016, reflecting the military’s increasing use of unmanned aircraft to stalk adversaries like the Taliban and ISIS.
The Air Force presented its first “R” devices to airmen this month, giving them to aircrews from the 432nd Wing/432 Air Expeditionary Wing on July 11 at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
The Air Force authorised the “R” device, for “remote,” in 2016 and released criteria for it in 2017, “to distinguish that an award was earned for direct hands-on employment of a weapon system that had a direct and immediate impact on a combat or military operation,” the service said last year.
The five airmen recognised at Creech were picked for their actions on criteria that included strategic significance, protection of ground forces, leadership displayed, critical thinking, level of difficulty,and innovation.
“It is a great honour to recognise the contributions of these airmen,” Col Julian C. Cheater, 432nd commander, said in a release. “Much of the world will never know details of their contributions due to operational security, but rest assured that they have made significant impacts while saving friendly lives.”
According to the release, the airmen eliminated threats to and saved the lives of US and coalition forces on the ground.
In one case, an MQ-9 Reaper crew from the 732nd Operations Group, identified only as retired Maj. Asa and Capt. Evan, performed attack and reconnaissance missions over 74 days to identify a high-value target and known terrorist, coordinating with other aircraft and successfully carrying out a strike on the target.
“I went home that night and I knew what I did,” the airman identified only as Evan said. “I think to the outside community, something like this will give a sense of perspective.”
In other operation, 1st Lt. Eric and Senior Airman Jason, both MQ-9 Reaper crew members from the 432nd looking for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, spotted a truck with a large-calibre machine gun heading toward coalition forces.
The two airmen tracked the vehicle, coordinating with personnel on the ground. They noticed a large group of civilians near the truck and held off firing until the truck returned to a garage, at which point they struck with a Hellfire missile.
“In this particular situation, we were able to quickly assess that the enemy was not yet inflicting effective fire on friendly forces which allowed us to completely prepare for the strike,” the MQ-9 pilot identified as Eric said in the release.
In another operation, a 432nd MQ-9 pilot named as Capt. Abrham and his crew remained on station after poor weather forced manned aircraft to withdraw. The crew continued surveillance amid the deteriorating weather conditions and eventually identified enemy personnel firing on coalition forces.
Abrham fired four Hellfire missiles, taking out three targets, two vehicles, and one mortar, before returning to base.
The decision to add the “R” device – alongside a “V” device for “valor” and a “C” device for “combat” – reflects the military’s increasing reliance on drones and remotely piloted aircraft, which often carry stay on station for extended periods and always without exposing a human to risk.
“As the impact of remote operations on combat continues to increase, the necessity of ensuring those actions are distinctly recognised grows,” Pentagon officials said in a January 7, 2016, memo.
The Air Force has sought to normalize remotely piloted operations. The Culture and Process Improvement Program has been successful at implementing improved manning, additional basing opportunities, and streamlined training, the Air Force said the release, and awarding the “R” device is meant to continue that normalization effort.
“The ‘R’ device denotes that there were critical impacts accomplished from afar – often where others cannot go – and that we are ready to fight from any location that our US leaders determine is best,” Cheater said.
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