Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced the creation of a medal that can be awarded to U.S. troops who launch drone missile strikes or carry out cyberattacks that kill or disable an enemy.
Speaking at the Pentagon, the outgoing defense chief said the new Distinguished Warfare Medal "provides distinct, department-wide recognition for the extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails."
The medal is the first combat-related award to be created by the U.S. military since the Bronze Star in 1944.
The announcement of the medal comes amid continuing controversy over the U.S. drone program.
Drone missile strikes have been used to target suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. But the strikes have been criticized for also causing civilian deaths.
The U.S. administration has also faced criticism over its assertion that it can legally use drones to target American citizens suspected of plotting terrorist attacks – even if they have not been formally charged with any crime.
The White House maintains the drone program is legal and ethical in an era of unconventional war, where there may not be time or the capabilities to capture a suspected terrorist and take them to court before an attack is carried out.
U.S. officials have also recently increased warnings about the growing threat of a catastrophic cyberattack that could cripple American networks and defenses that rely on computers to operate.
President Barack Obama this week signed an executive order aimed at boosting America’s defenses against cyberespionage and other attacks on networks used by the U.S. government and corporations.
In his State of the Union speech on February 12, Obama warned that America’s enemies are "seeking the ability to sabotage” the U.S. power grid, financial institutions, and air-traffic control systems. He suggested that not enough is being done to protect systems and to counter cyberattackers.
As with drones, however, observers point to a host of legal and privacy questions regarding cyberwarfare that have not yet been resolved by congressional lawmakers.
In his remarks, Panetta, who also served as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief in the Obama administration, spoke of how modern technologies such as drones and linked computer networks are changing the way wars are fought.
"During my time as director of the CIA and as secretary of defense, I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cybersystems, have changed the way wars are fought," he said. "And they've given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar."
Former Senator Chuck Hagel has been nominated by Obama to replace Panetta.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa