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​The Air Force in 2016 authorized the creation of the R device for a select few weapons as a way to recognize the combat contributions of RPA pilots. Air Force photo by SrA. James Thompson.

​The Air Force is considering awarding the Legion of Merit to remotely piloted aircraft pilots and sensor operators for the first time, presenting a medal typically reserved for higher-ranking officers and enlisted leaders to more junior RPA pilots and operators who already have extensive combat experience.

And the service isn't ruling out the possibility of awarding a Distinguished Flying Cross to an RPA pilot, the commander of the Air Force's main RPA wing said.

The Air Force in 2016 authorized the creation of the R device for a select few weapons as a way to recognize the combat contributions of RPA pilots. In July,  the Air Force awarded the first R devices with Meritorious Service Medals and Air Force Commendation Medals to 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing aircrews.  The awards are a "big morale boost" to the airmen in a community that is still relatively misunderstood to much of the rest of the Air Force and the general public, 432nd Wing Commander Col. Julian Cheater told Air Force Magazine.

Before awarding the first R devices, Cheater, RPA group commanders, and group chiefs participated in a "decoration board," where they reviewed extraordinary airstrikes, including ones that had larger strategic significance or were more difficult based on the time sensitivity of the mission or the operational environment, Cheater said.

The first round of awards was authorized by Cheater, but some airstrikes merited an award higher than a Meritorious Service Medal or Air Force Commendation Medal. The Combined Forces Air Component Commander is now reviewing those cases for a possible Legion of Merit, the highest award authorized for an R device under Air Force regulations.

Typically, the Legion of Merit is awarded to US officers who are colonels or higher, or enlisted service members who are chief master sergeants. Because of the RPA community's force structure, in which second lieutenants fly combat strikes and first lieutenants can have "serious" combat experience, younger airmen could receive this award.

"The ones in my mind that may be worthy [involved] an extremely time-sensitive moving target, where significant friendlies are at risk, or the level of difficulty is extreme," Cheater said, including a scenario where there is limited-to-no information from forces on the ground when a decision must be made immediately to protect friendly forces.

While the Air Force's current regulations only allow these three medals with the R device, the Legion of Merit does not typically cover actions in the air. Cheater said "there may be" Distinguished Flying Crosses with an R device to reflect that the meritorious actions did involve aircraft in combat operations.

"In the future, it may evolve to that point, but right now we are operating within the regulations available to us," he said.

The decorations board will meet again in October for the second round of R-device awards, with "quite a few more" candidates this time around, Cheater said.