Among its most valued warriors, the Pentagon now counts U.S. troops whose operations entail the click of a mouse or the remote piloting of unmanned vehicles. But how does the government bestow honor upon those who do their work thousands of miles from the front lines?
In what probably was his last move as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta on Wednesday announced the creation of a new type of medal for troops engaged in cyber-operations and drone strikes, saying the move “recognizes the changing face of warfare.”
“I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber-systems, have changed the way wars are fought,” Panetta said during his swan-song news conference at the Pentagon. “They’ve given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.”
Reeling from the cost, mixed results and unintended consequences of protracted ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has come to rely heavily on drones to carry out the targeted killing of suspected extremists worldwide. It also has stepped up efforts to sharpen the country’s capabilities in cyberspace in the face of threats that officials say are growing and pose direct danger to U.S. national security.
The Pentagon’s most prestigious awards will still go to “those who display gallantry and valor in actions where their lives are on the line,” Panetta said.
The new honor is called the Distinguished Warfare Medal. It will be awarded to a few warriors who make exceptional contributions, officials said.
At the news conference, Panetta, a former congressman, said he lamented the deterioration of the relationship between Capitol Hill and the executive branch.
“We need to find solutions,” he said. “We can’t just sit here and complain. We can’t just sit here and blame others. We can’t just sit here and point fingers at each other.”
The remarks appeared to reflect frustration about the searing opposition his presumptive replacement has faced. Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) got a lashing Tuesday from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee as the panel, which is dominated by Democrats, narrowly supported his nomination in a party-line vote. The full Senate is expected to vote on Hagel’s confirmation by Friday.