WASHINGTON – They fight the war from computer consoles and video screens.
But the troops that 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.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Wednesday that for the first time the Pentagon is creating a medal that can be awarded to troops who have a direct impact on combat operations, but do it from afar.
"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, 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."
The work they do "does contribute to the success of combat operations, particularly when they remove the enemy from the field of battle, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight," he said.
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 is 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.
Over the last decade of war, remotely-piloted Predators and Reapers have become a critical weapon to both gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes against terrorist or insurgents around the world. They have been used extensively on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and northern 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 cyber operations 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, launched 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's list of criteria for the medal. It could include the "hands-on" but remote launching of a weapon and could specifically include efforts in space or cyberspace.
The medal is a brass pendant, nearly two inches tall, with a laurel wreath that circles a globe. There is an eagle in the center. The ribbon has blue, red and white stripes.