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We Need the Distinguished Warfare Medal
By Harold Hutchison

It is the year 2025 – America is at war with China due to treaty commitments to Japan and the Philippines. On the opening day of the war, an Air Force Technical Sergeant working at the National Security Agency is able to halt a Chinese cyber-attack targeting the Ground-Based Interceptors based in California and Alaska. As a result, China’s effort to wipe out the Pacific Fleet’s carriers in San Diego with an ICBM strike is halted.

Meanwhile, at Creech Air Force Base, a Navy Lieutenant controls a flight of four X-47C Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles. Their target: A task force that includes China’s aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shi Lang, and their escorts. At point-blank range, the UCAVs unleash GBU-56 Laser JDAMs on the escorting Luyang-class destroyers. Damaged or sunk, the escorts are unable to stop an Alpha Strike from the carriers Ronald Reagan and George Washington, and the Chinese carriers are quickly put out of action by a flurry of Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The above scenarios are completely hypothetical. Hopefully, they would never happen. But at the same time, the service members portrayed in this scenario have done things that significantly affect the course of this fictional Sino-American War. They clearly warrant recognition of their actions, but at the same time, they did not place themselves at risk of physical harm. So, how should they recognized?

On 13 February, 2013, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the establishment of the Distinguished Warfare Medal. “The DWM provides an avenue to recognize appropriately extraordinary direct impacts on combat operations warranting recognition above a Bronze Star Medal,” Panetta wrote in a DOD memo on the new decoration.

Can anyone seriously think that there shouldn’t be recognition for the person who thwarts a cyber-attack that could cripple the country’s ability to respond to a crisis? Or how about a UAV operator who takes out a high-ranking terrorist like Anwar al-Awlaki? The Air Force Cross, Navy Cross, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star should not be awarded for those UAV pilots, and the Distinguished Flying Cross is properly reserved for pilots who fly extraordinary missions. The Distinguished Warfare Medal is an appropriate honor for UAV operators and other personnel who contribute to success in the War on Terror, but who aren’t facing the enemy in combat.

There is a dispute about the medal’s precedence above the Bronze Star, with some claims that it denigrates that medal. If that is the case, then here are a host of other medals that should warrant similar criticism – including the various Distinguished Service Medals, which take precedence over the Silver Star. Yet, to date, there seems to be no push from the critics of this decision to to send these medals down the pecking order on behalf of the Silver Star, much less the Bronze Star.

Setting the order of precedence for medals is always a matter of making compromises. In this case, there has been a good-faith effort to properly recognize those who make extraordinary contributions to the War on Terror from places thousands of miles from the combat zone. The Distinguished Warfare Medal deserves to be given a chance.