Photographer: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin J. Steinberg//U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Photographer: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin J. Steinberg//U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Lethal flying robots hover in the skies above Afghanistan. Controlled by pilots far from the battlefield and safe from harm, these drones conduct surveillance, protect U.S. troops and, often, kill enemy combatants.

If these pilots sat in a cockpit rather than in front of a computer screen, they'd be praised as heroes and pinned with medals. They don't, and they aren't. Yet as drones become both more routine and more indispensable to the U.S. war effort, the Defense Department is reviewing its procedures for bestowing medals and awards. Should drone pilots be honored with one of their own?

The question is more than philosophical -- and the answer is yes.

One reason is that it's proving extremely hard to attract qualified drone operators. That's partly because the job lacks esteem within the military and in the public mind. And it's partly because the career prospects for drone pilots are limited. In the Air Force, their rate of promotion to the rank of major was 13 percentage points below that of traditional pilots from 2008 to 2013. Awards and medals are an important component in determining promotions; giving them to drone operators for extraordinary achievements in combat could help attract better recruits to an increasingly important part of the U.S. arsenal.

Another reason is that the military needs to create a moral framework to govern the use of drones and other forms of robotic or automated weaponry. A good first step would be articulating what values will be honored in such warfare, and what virtues a good drone pilot should demonstrate. That may require a substantial shift in thinking -- honoring technical skill and creative thinking, for instance, rather than bravery and physical sacrifice -- but it would acknowledge the changing realities of warfare.

That, in turn, could help the public understand that drones aren't -- and shouldn't be -- just killing machines: They provide invaluable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, helping ground troops understand the battlefield and shaping strategic decision-making. They've saved a lot of lives.

Finally, drone pilots may be safe from enemy fire, but they aren't immune to the debilitating effects of war. Unlike most pilots, they often see enemies -- and casualties -- up close. They might monitor targets for months, watching them interact with family and friends, before pulling the trigger. And they have to bear the guilt and consequences when civilians are killed. Drone pilots suffer from mental-health problems such as anxiety disorders, depression and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as traditional pilots. And they report very high rates of fatigue and stress. They're not storming the beaches at Normandy -- but they certainly aren't playing a video game.

Last year, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new honor, known as the Distinguished Warfare Medal, to recognize the work of drone pilots, cyberwarriors and others far from the battlefield. It was the right gesture, poorly executed: The medal would have outranked others, such as the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, that are reserved for heroic actions in combat. After criticism, the plan was dropped.

Now the Pentagon is beginning a review of all military awards and medals, to be completed late this year or early next. It should make room for a new medal, or a new ribbon added to an existing medal, to commend drone pilots.

The honor shouldn't outrank those earned by troops risking their lives. But it should recognize that the skills of drone pilots contribute more and more to American success in warfare. It should acknowledge that their sacrifice -- though not the same as an infantryman's -- is nonetheless honorable. And it should affirm that as the nature of warfare evolves, the military's enduring values will evolve as well.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.