New legislation aims to give drone crews tax-free combat pay

Military drone crews could soon receive the same tax-free combat pay as deployed troops, under a pair of bills slated for release Wednesday.

Service members who fly remotely piloted aircraft or operate their surveillance and targeting sensors don’t qualify for untaxed income because they largely wage war from installations in the continental US rather than in combat zones like Iraq or Somalia.

sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., the legislation’s sponsors in the House and Senate and members of their respective Armed Services committees, want to fix that.

“Warfare is increasingly conducted stateside, yet drone crews engaged in active combat situations are not recognized as having served in combat by the military and therefore do not receive benefits or care commensurate with their service,” Blackburn said in a release.

“These servicemembers experience similar stressors to their colleagues who are physically overseas and see similar horrific events play out, and deserve to be treated as such,” she said.

Drone crews would be eligible for untaxed income if they fly missions anywhere within a combat zone approved by the Pentagon, from the Sinai Peninsula to Kosovo to the Arabian Peninsula, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Their annual salaries, and how much they are taxed, vary by state and federal tax brackets, grade and training.

On top of their monthly income and housing and subsistence allowances, these troops already receive an untaxed flight stipend that is separate from combat pay. That monthly combat stipend would become available, tax-free, to the RPA community if the legislation is signed into law.

Most of the Pentagon’s drone operations are handled by the Air Force, which flies the MQ-9 Reaper on strike and intelligence-collection missions from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, an area represented by Rosen and Horsford, as well as from a handful of satellite locations like Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, and Shaw AFB, South Carolina.

A smaller subset of those troops do deploy overseas to handle the aircraft when they launch and return to base.

The provision would apply to any RPA fleet used in designated areas of conflict, like the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drones, by any branch of the armed forces.

Service members would qualify in cases when they provide “intelligence, targeting or command and control that has been certified by the Secretary of Defense to be in direct support” of an RPA mission in a combat zone, according to bill text provided to Air Force Times .

Untaxed income would not kick in retroactively if the legislation is signed into law, but would apply to future pay for those in uniform. Contractors who fly drones for the military cannot claim tax-free pay under the legislation.

Right now, the bills aren’t part of the annual defense policy legislation that is being marked up on Capitol Hill, but could be added in later.

A New York Times article published in April highlighted the emotional trauma faced by drone crews and the policy shortfalls that complicated matters.

“Drone crews have launched more missiles and killed more people than nearly anyone else in the military in the past decade, but the military did not count them as combat troops,” Times reporter Dave Philipps wrote. “Because they were not deployed, they seldom got the same recovery periods or mental-health screenings as other fighters. Instead they were treated as office workers, expected to show up for endless shifts in a forever war.”

Rosen’s office did not answer whether more work is underway in Congress to change other policies that disadvantage RPA crews. The Air Force has taken on some of that work itself, such as in 2019, when it ruled that airmen don’t need a medical waiver to continue flying drone missions while pregnant.

“I’m pleased to be building on the bipartisan provision I helped secure in [the 2023 defense policy bill] to support these crews’ mental health and improve their quality of life, and will always fight to make sure that our service members in Nevada and across our country receive the benefits they deserve,” Rosen said in a release.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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