Major Dave Blair has been taking some flak recently, after an article he wrote in the Air & Space Power Journal, got picked up over at Time Magazine's website in a blog post entitled, Drone Pilots: We Don't Get No Respect. Time's website didn't do him any favors with their article. I know Dave, and in the past he has shared some of his thoughts on this blog. He was a co-pilot in the Gunship after I left the squadron, but I got to know him later through online correspondence, and still later in person when I volunteered to join the RPA community. Dave has some good ideas. Most importantly, he is motivated to think and share his thoughts. That's refreshing and important in our largely non-intellectual service community. We do have some very serious differences, however, concerning our professed ideas and values, and our translation of those professed ideas and values into action for the good of the nation. Still, Dave has some good stuff to offer, and he professes some excellent values that are necessary for overcoming many of the cultural challenges we face in the air service. All that being said, I think he missed the mark in this article.
In the article above he essentially makes three key points. First, that there is at least as much risk flying an RPA as there is flying a manned aircraft in a combat zone. Second, that RPA operators should get the same medals that manned aircraft get in combat, to include the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, if their actions result in saving lives on the ground through weapon employment. Third, the message sent by medals, matters for developing the capability and community of a new weapon system. I agree with his third point.
While I concur with Dave that the capability and the community has been poorly managed, I disagree on this particular solution. RPA operators do not risk like those in manned aircraft do, and especially not manned aircraft in combat zones. While our technology and the current state of affairs have made it relatively safe to fly in bad guy land, it can't be credibly argued that RPA operators experience as much operational risk. As to medals, that is an area of opinion. I agree with Dave that medals send a message, accurate or not. I don't think the answer is, however, to take medals that were meant to be awarded to those in harm's way and apply them to those who are not. While his goal is worthy, to bring some pride to the RPA community and hopefully get the service to manage it better, the solution isn't to demean awards given to bomber crews in World War II and fighter pilots who braved SAMs in Vietnam. Dave says, “On the current trajectory, the only Air Medals will be the ones in history books.” That may be true, but if our technology continues to take away or eliminate the risk associated with air power, the answer is to let those awards fade into the history books along with the heroes who earned them, back when air power meant risking yourself. When airmen no longer have to display courage in combat, then those medals belong in the annals of a bygone era. Besides, if we're really interested in our service culture, we should stop putting so much focus on courage in combat operations, and start putting more on courage displayed at home. That is where the courage is needed, and where courage will have the best effects for the service and the nation.