Hagel cancels creation of new drone, cyber medal following widespread criticism

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday cancelled the production of a new military medal for service members involved in drone attacks and cyber warfare -- following widespread criticism that the award would rank higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Hagel instead wants military leaders to develop a special pin or object that would be attached to already existing medals or ribbons.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal was created by Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, and it immediately triggered complaints from veterans and lawmakers.

Hagel last month ordered the military to stop production of the medal, and top defense and military leaders began a new review.

“While the review confirmed the need to ensure such recognition, it found that misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose,” said Hagel, who was twice awarded the Purple Heart.

The leaders have instead recommended the creation of an alternative honor, similar to the "V" for valor that can be attached to the Bronze Star and other medals to reward an act of heroism.

Hagel asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report back to him in 30 days.

When Panetta announced the medal would be created in mid-February, defense officials said it would be considered a bit higher in ranking than the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but lower than the Silver Star.

Panetta said the new medal, for only a small number of service men and women, reflected battlefield contributions in a world of changing warfare. He said that remotely piloted aircraft and cyber systems have changed the way that wars are fought and can change the course of a conflict from afar.

But the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups sent a letter to President Obama in March, asking him to keep the medal ranked below the Purple Heart, which is awarded for combat injuries. Critics said the ranking was an injustice to those troops who risked their lives in battle.

“The right decision was made,” the VFW said Monday. “This decision will clearly keep medals that can only be earned in combat in their high order of precedence, while providing proper recognition to all who support our war-fighters regardless of their distance from the fight.”

The American Legion's national commander, James E. Koutz, said Hagel's decision keeps the evolving roles of military combat in proper perspective.

"Cyber and drone warfare have become part of the equation for 21st-century combat, and those who fight such battles with distinction certainly deserve to be recognized," Koutz said in a statement. "But the American Legion still believes there's a fundamental difference between those who fight remotely, or via computer, and those fighting against an enemy who is trying to kill them."

As originally conceived, the blue, red and white-ribboned medal was to be awarded to individuals for "extraordinary achievement" related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. But it does not require the recipient to risk his or her life to get it.

Over the last decade of war, remotely piloted Predator and Reaper drones have become a critical weapon to gather intelligence and conduct air strikes against terrorists or insurgents around the world. They have been used extensively on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and northern Africa.

Over the same time, cyber attacks have become a growing national security threat, with Panetta and others warning that the next Pearl Harbor could well be a computer-based assault.

The Bronze Star is the fourth-highest combat decoration and rewards meritorious service in battle, while the Silver Star is the third-highest combat award given for bravery. The Purple Heart is ranked just below the Bronze Star.

Several other awards, including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, are also ranked higher than the Silver Star, but are not awarded for combat.

In addition to veterans' concerns, there is a practical side to the rankings for currently serving troops. There are grades of medals -- commendation, merit, distinguished -- that affect promotions for those still in uniform. Each grade gives troops a certain number of points needed for promotions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.