Winning The Battle Remotely: New Medal Awards Evolving Warfare

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To get the newest military medal, you don't have to have been on the front lines. In fact, you could work very, very far from any combat.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal, announced by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday, would recognize drone operators and those engaged in cyberattacks who haven't put themselves in harm's way.

"This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we're engaged in in the 21st century," Panetta said in a news conference.

Recipients might be operating a drone over Afghanistan from the United States or hacking into an enemy's computer system, NPR's Tom Bowman tells Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday.

"The thing to remember is that your actions could turn the tide of a battle or have a huge impact on a military operation. That's why you would get this medal," he says.

The Marine Corps Times reported Wednesday that the medal has extra weight because of its assigned rank among other awards:

"The new medal will rank just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. It will have precedence over — and be worn on the uniform above — the Bronze Star with Valor device, a medal awarded to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat."

Bowman spoke with Lamont Anderson in 2007, when the Air Force captain was training to operate a Predator drone. Anderson would leave his apartment in his flight suit and drive to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, where he worked inside a bunker in front of a computer screen with a joystick.

"I'm so far removed," Anderson said. "Here we are at a remote location, far away from the battlefield. I can't really see — I can't physically put my eyes on it. I have a camera."

Listen to Bowman's full report on "commuter combat pilots" from 2007:

Drone sophistication has only increased since then, Bowman says, and they're doing different things, including dropping bombs and surveillance. They're also operating in the air, underwater and on land.

Panetta said only "extraordinary" acts would merit a Distinguished Warfare Medal. So what would count? Bowman says it's not totally clear-cut, but he does give some possible examples:

"You could imagine a bunch of soldiers in Afghanistan getting pinned down by a large Taliban force, here comes the drone keeping an eye one them, maybe dropping ... a bomb or two, taking out the Taliban and saving maybe dozens of American lives.

"Or it could be, you know, you're in a war with a particular country and you take down their air defense system ... by hacking into it, or you prevent generals from talking to the soldiers in the field and that could change the tide of a battle."

Bowman says eventually there will be more pilots for drones than ones who actually fly aircraft, so this medal will become particularly important to the Air Force. Here's a clip of his interview with Martin (we'll add the full interview once it's available Sunday):

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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