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As war changes, new medal honors drone pilots, cyber warriors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a nod to the changing nature of warfare, the Pentagon on Wednesday created a new medal recognizing combat contributions of people like drone pilots and cyber warriors who are reshaping the battlefield, even from thousands of miles away.

Outgoing Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Leon Panetta - who spent much of the past four years bolstering those new capabilities - announced the decision to create the "Distinguished Warfare Medal" at a Pentagon news conference.

"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought," Panetta said.

"This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we are engaged in, in the 21st century."

It is the ninth-highest warfare medal the Pentagon can bestow on troops - even higher than the Bronze Star. Importantly, it is the only combat medal that a military service member can receive without actually physically being in the same geographic area where combat took place.

Previously, drone pilots who remotely guide missiles against important targets in places like Pakistan or Yemen would not qualify for combat awards, because their acts technically lacked "valor" - a key requirement.

Valor, as defined by the military, involves extraordinary acts of heroism "while engaged in direct combat with an enemy with exposure to enemy hostilities and personal risk."

The Distinguished Warfare Medal does not carry the requirement of valor. But Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, stressed it would only be given for extraordinary contributions.

"The criteria for this award will be highly selective and reflect high standards," Dempsey said in a statement.

The creation of the medal comes amid a national debate about the transparency behind lethal drone strikes and the powers of the president to order drone attacks against U.S. citizens overseas.

Some lawmakers have proposed the creation of a U.S. "drone court" to approve the targeting of suspected militants.

It also comes amid Pentagon efforts to bolster the military's cyber capabilities, amid increasing concern about hacking from China and Iran.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech)

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