The Complex

Medals for Drone Pilots? Hagel Faces Tough Choice

Just before Leon Panetta left the Pentagon, the former Defense Secretary threw a political grenade into the building's E-Ring when he created a new award -- a "distinguished warfare medal" -- in recognition of the work drone operators do. But so far, no medals have been issued. Chuck Hagel, Panetta's successor, still hasn't announced a decision on he'd like to handle an issue that may seem silly to the civilian world -- but is beyond-radioactive within the military. 

As a former director of CIA and then Pentagon chief, Panetta felt it was time to show drone pilots and others in the community that the Defense Department values their work. In a military where medals and public recognition are the coin of the realm when it comes to promotions, many felt drone crews were unsung heroes.

"Our military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions where their lives are on the line, and we will continue to do so," Panetta said at what would be his last press briefing at the Pentagon in February 2013. "But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations."

But the new medal caused an uproar. Ground troops felt disrespected because in the hierarchal world of military order, it sat two awards up from the Bronze Star medal in precedence -- and three above the Purple Heart. That was seen as a bit of a slight at infantrymen in the war zones, because the personal risks and valor they exhibited on the ground now appeared to be seen as less valuable than "joystick operators" working out of  places like Creech Air Force Base, down the highway from Las Vegas, Nev.

"The DWM must be demoted to its proper place in the order of military decorations, a move that is necessary to uphold the integrity of the awards process and ensure valor awards for courage and sacrifice in combat are not diminished in any way," wrote Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., a California Republican and former Marine officer who introduced legislation to prevent the medal as envisioned from going forward.

Enter Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former Army sergeant who fought on the ground in Vietnam and immediately saw the need to take a deep breath on this issue. A month or so after entering office, upon the advice of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon's other service chiefs, Hagel killed the medal altogether. Instead, he said he would create a "distinguishing device" -- later known as the "Remote Impacts Device" -- that would be affixed on existing medals, in effect downgrading recognition for drone operators. But that's all that was said. Nearly 10 months later, key specifics about the recognition -- who should be eligible, what awards it can be affixed to, and how operators would rate it -- have yet to be announced. 

That's because Hagel is preparing to launch a broad review of how all troops are honored for their service as the long war in Afghanistan winds down and U.S. forces potentially find themselves in other hotspots. 

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told Foreign Policy that the review will "include service members entrusted with the responsibility to operate remote technology to directly impact combat as well as more traditional forms of arms." He said it would be finished later this year or in the early part of 2015.

Hagel, Kirby added, had a unique perspective on the issue of recognizing heroism.

"Having seen combat himself, Secretary Hagel fully understands and respects the traditions that come with awards and decorations," Kirby said. "This is a process that will take time and care, but he believes it's important it's done right."

Some believe Hagel, who has been consumed with far more important matters -- from the drawdown in Afghanistan to Egypt to the Pentagon budget to North Korea -- has back-burnered the issue in the hope that it will just sort of disappear on its own.

Others think Hagel could have used the opportunity to send an important signal to ground forces at a time when the wars are coming to a close, the benefits of service members are under scrutiny after more than a decade of war, and the services, particularly the Army, are beginning to shrink by tens of thousands of troops.

"There was a tremendous rift in the force when the Distinguished Warfare Medal was introduced," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "We're pleased that Secretary Hagel chose to eliminate the medal and to use the existing medal structure to appropriately award those who have a tremendous impact on the battlefield from afar."

Doug Birkey, director of government relations for the Air Force Association in Washington, said it's tough to try to balance the value of "strategic effect" with "personal sacrifice."

"An RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] operator could net an incredibly important strategic goal, but not be in direct personal danger due to the attributes afforded by remote operations," Birkey said. "This is a new paradigm that diverges from the traditional model of attaining objectives via putting one's self in harm's way."

But he paraphrased Gen. George Patton's famous quote that "it's not your job to die for your country, it's your job to make the enemy die for his." Then he added: "Given the rapid emergence of cyber and RPA ops -- both of which change what it means to project combat power -- I personally think it is important to consider rewarding skill and innovative thinking that nets strategic goals for the nation."

It's unclear if, or how, Hagel will decide to honor drone operators and crews for their wartime service. But after more than a decade of two bloody and expensive ground wars, the future of warfare will have more drone operators in it than boots on the ground, and that's a reality that he may find it hard to ignore.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

National Security

The Pentagon's Route out of Afghanistan Passes Through a Former CIA Black Site

The Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania is a short drive from the Black Sea and the port city of Constanta, a sprawling metropolis with beach resorts, museums, and nightclubs. It's also about to become the main transit point for the tens of thousands of U.S. troops flowing out of Afghanistan. It won't be the first time Washington has used the base for a sensitive mission, however: If human rights groups are correct, the facility also used to house one of the CIA's notorious "black site" detention facilities.

The spy agency's mysterious use of the base has never been fully explained. In 2005, The Washington Post first reported the United States had secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe, but decided not to identify their locations at the request of the U.S. government. The organization Human Rights Watch demanded further investigation into CIA activities on the base shortly afterward, noting that the U.S. intelligence service had landed planes on the base, commonly known as MK, and that public access to the base had been sealed off. The Romanian government denied any detention facilities were there -- but did acknowledge allowing the agency to quietly land planes on the base.

The controversy led Romania to take the unusual step of opening the base to media tours in December 2005 -- proof, it said, that there had been no secret prisons there. Still, the Associated Press reported in 2011 that there had been a secret CIA prison in Bucharest, Romania's capital, which was used to interrogate al-Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Regardless, most Romanians regarded the controversies with indifference because of a widespread belief that aligning their country with the United States was still their best bet for security, said Dennis Deletant, a visiting professor of Romanian studies at Georgetown University.

That complicated history serves as the backdrop to MK's new mission, which will begin next month, as the primary transit point for the troops returning home from Afghanistan. In 2006, MK became the first military installation in a former Warsaw Pact country to host a permanent presence of U.S. troops. It consisted primarily of a headquarters staff and rotating groups of troops charged with training the Romanians, giving the U.S. access to a strategically located base along the Black Sea.

The transit mission brings Romania and the United States even closer. At least 20,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines are expected to flow through the air base between now and the end of 2014, as the Obama administration winds down combat operations in Afghanistan. That number could balloon to 30,000 troops if President Barack Obama decides to pull the plug on all U.S. military operations in Afghanistan after 2014, said Army Maj. Gen. John O'Connor, whose command in Germany will oversee the transit mission at MK.

"Our vision there is to keep MK as a temporary location, not to build it out," O'Connor, commanding general of the Army's 21st Theater Sustainment Command, told Foreign Policy. "It's what we call the accordion effect: As missions come up, we expand. And as this mission comes down, we'll collapse MK with no intent to build it out as any permanent structure."

The accommodations will be sparse. O'Connor said his soldiers are only building basic, cheap wood buildings to house the combat forces passing through to and from Afghanistan. Up to 3,000 troops could be at MK at a time, adhering to an agreement reached between Bucharest and Washington, the general said.

MK will replace the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, a highly controversial base that has been at the center of a bitter and expensive power struggle between the U.S. and Russian governments. The U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off the government in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, to keep the base open, but the country's relationship with Washington became increasingly hostile when Russia pushed Bishkek to significantly increase how much it was charging the Pentagon to route troops and supplies through the base.

The MK agreement was announced by the Pentagon in October during a visit by Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa. Talk to O'Connor, though, and it is clear the United States was considering alternatives to Manas long before that. With it still in operation, the Pentagon quietly sent some 20,000 U.S. forces through MK over the last two years, including some with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. It's "proof of concept," the general said, that the Romanian base could serve as the main U.S. transit point for the war in Afghanistan.

MK is three times as far from Kabul as Manas, but it will cost the United States less to use it overall than Manas, said Mark Blackington, a spokesman with U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and southwest Asia. That's because while the Air Force's C-17s will have to fly farther out of Afghanistan to get to MK, the charter flights used to take the troops home from there will cost less than those flying out of Manas, he said.

The mission at MK won't be quite as large as the one at Manas -- a reflection, in part, that the size of the war in Afghanistan already has shrunk. Still, some 400 troops under O'Connor's command will be based there this year to process troops in transit, with the work beginning in days. A team of three colonels will be leading the transit mission at MK. In return for allowing the U.S. transit mission, the Romanian government will get an undisclosed amount of fuel, O'Connor said.

Manas has typically had a permanent staff of roughly 1,400 troops and 200 civilians and contractors working for the Defense Department. Between February and July, when the lease at Manas runs out, U.S. forces in transit could be sent through either Romania or Kyrgyzstan, with the mission eventually shifting entirely to Romania, O'Connor said.

The transit mission moving to MK highlights a basic truth: While the United States' popularity in many region of the world is tenuous, it remains immensely popular in the former Eastern Bloc, a collection of countries that were once under communist Soviet rule. They include Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Georgia. In one example, Poland and Romania agreed to host aspects of NATO's defense missile shield, angering Russia.

Poland and Lithuania also are accused of allowing CIA prison sites in their countries. Polish officials said Friday they would investigate new allegations in The Washington Post that the agency interrogated al-Qaeda leaders at an intelligence training facility in the northeastern part of their country.

Photo by Senior Airman Tabitha Kuykendall/ U.S. Air Force