By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New military awards will recognize U.S. troops who have directly affected battles as drone pilots or in cyber operations, the Defense Department said on Thursday.
The changes follow an 18-month review which made broader recommendations including standardizing criteria for awards recognizing valorous conduct across all services.
The new award for drone pilots or cyber operators will be a letter "R" device to be affixed to existing service medals. Intelligence officers are unlikely to be eligible for the award, officials said.
"It is for those who have a direct and immediate impact who don't incur the risk of combat," a defense official said.
Drones have been President Barack Obama's counterterrorism weapon of choice since he took office in 2009, and have been used in the U.S. pursuit of militant groups in Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
"As the impact of remote operations on combat continues to increase, the necessity of ensuring those actions are distinctly recognized grows," the Pentagon said in a statement outlining the changes.
The department conducted 37 focus groups as part of the review, initiated by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Groups including the Veterans of Foreign Wars had opposed earlier plans to create a medal to recognize remote operators, saying it was unfair to give it a status higher than some awards for actions taken directly on the battlefield. The Pentagon scrapped plans for a medal in 2013.
In a statement on Thursday, the VFW said it supported the creation of the "R" device, which it said would recognize contributions of thousands of service members made "from afar."
Defense officials are also looking at about 1100 recommendations for Silver Star and Service Cross medals made since Sept. 11, 2001 during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the wars continued, commanders became more willing to upgrade recommendations for medals, the Pentagon said. So it is reviewing awards to determine if any earlier ones ought to be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
"There's no presumption at this point but there's certainly been some of those concerns raised...by veterans and outside groups," said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.
No troop's medal would be revoked as part of the review, officials said. The reviews will be conducted by each service and are due by September 2017.
The other changes, including the introduction of the remote service award, will be implemented over the next 12 months.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by David Gregorio)