WASHINGTON — They fight the war from computer consoles and video screens.
But the troops who launch the drone strikes and direct the cyberattacks that can kill or disable an enemy may never set foot in the combat zone. Now their battlefield contributions may be recognized with the first new combat-related medal to be created in decades.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the Pentagon is creating a medal that can be awarded to troops who have a direct impact on combat operations, but do it well away from any combat zone.
“I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought,” Panetta said. “And they’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.”
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The new blue, red and white-ribboned Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to individuals for “extraordinary achievement” related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. But unlike other combat medals, it does not require the recipient risk his or her life to get it.
Officials said the new medal will be the first combat-related award to be created since the Bronze Star in 1944.
A recognition of the evolving 21st-century warfare, the medal will be considered a bit higher in ranking than the Bronze Star but lower than the Silver Star, defense officials said.
The Bronze Star is the fourth-highest combat decoration and rewards meritorious service in battle, while the Silver Star is the third-highest combat award given for bravery. Several other awards, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, are also ranked higher, but are not awarded for combat.
Response in the cybersphere was immediate and divided, and more often biting. While some acknowledged the contributions of cyber and drone warriors and said the award was the right thing to do, others dubbed the medal the “Geek Cross” and speculated young video-gamers may soon get Purple Hearts for their animated wounds.
In the past decade of war, remotely piloted Predators and Reapers have become a crucial weapon for gathering intelligence and in conducting airstrikes against terrorists or insurgents around the world.
They have been used extensively on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa.
Over the same time, cyberattacks have become a growing national-security threat, with Panetta and others warning that the next Pearl Harbor could well be a computer-based assault.
The Pentagon does not publicly discuss its offensive cyberoperations or acts of cyberwarfare. Considering that secrecy, it’s not clear how public such awards might be in the future.
The federal government, for example, began a broad leak investigation after reports surfaced that the U.S. and Israel may have been responsible for the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked computers in Iran’s main nuclear-enrichment facilities.
According to the Pentagon criteria, the medal gives the military a way to recognize a single act that directly affects a combat operation, doesn’t involve an act of valor and warrants an award higher than the Bronze Star.
“The extraordinary achievement must have resulted in an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar situations,” according to the Pentagon. It could include the “hands-on” but remote launching of a weapon and could specifically include efforts in space or cyberspace.