In what probably was his last move as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta announced on February 13, 2013 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.” The official description said that it, “may not be awarded for valor in combat under any circumstances,” which is unique. The idea was to recognize accomplishments that are exceptional and outstanding, but not bounded in any geographic or chronologic manner – that is, it’s not taking place in the combat zone. This recognized that people can now do extraordinary things because of the new technologies that are used in war.
On April 16, 2013, barely two months later, incoming Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel has withdrawn the medal. The medal was the first combat-related award to be created since the Bronze Star in 1944.
Why was it thought to be necessary? Use the case of the mission that got the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Reporting showed that U.S. warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house in which Zarqawi was meeting with other insurgent leaders. A U.S. military spokesman said coalition forces pinpointed Zarqawi’s location after weeks of tracking the movements of his spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdul Rahman, who also was killed in the blast. A team of unmanned aerial systems, drone operators, tracked him down. It was over 600 hours of mission operational work that finally pinpointed him. They put the laser target on the compound that he was in, this terrorist leader, and then an F-16 pilot flew six minutes, facing no enemy fire, and dropped the bombs – computer-guided of course – on that laser. The pilot was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The idea behind the medal was that drone operators can be recognized as well. The Distinguished Warfare Medal was to rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was to have precedence over — and be worn on a uniform above — the Bronze Star with “V” device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat. It was intended to recognize the magnitude of the achievement, not the personal risk taken by the recipient.
The decision to cancel the medal is more reflective on the uneasiness about the extent to which UAVs are being used in war, rather than questioning the skill and dedication of the operators. In announcing the move, Secretary Hagel said a “device” will be affixed to existing medals to recognize those who fly and operate drones, whom he described as “critical to our military’s mission of safeguarding the nation.” It also did not help that the medal had a higher precedence than a Purple Heart or Bronze Star.
There is no getting away from it, warfare in the 21st Century is increasingly in the cyber domain.