WASHINGTON — They fight the war from computer consoles and video screens.

But the troops who launch the drone strikes and direct the cyberattacks that can kill or disable an enemy may never set foot in the combat zone. Now their battlefield contributions may be recognized with the first new combat-related medal to be created in decades.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Wednesday that the Pentagon is creating a medal that can be awarded to troops who have a direct impact on combat operations, but do it well away from any combat zone.

"I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought," Panetta said. "And they've given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar."

The work they do "does contribute to the success of combat operations, particularly when they remove the enemy from the field of battle, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight," he said.

The new blue, red and white-ribboned Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to individuals for "extraordinary achievement" related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. But unlike other combat medals, it does not require the recipient risk his or her life to get it.

Officials said the new medal will be the first combat-related award to be created since the Bronze Star in 1944.

A recognition of the evolving 21st century warfare, the medal will be considered a bit higher in ranking than the Bronze Star, but is lower than the Silver Star, defense officials said.

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

Response in the cybersphere was immediate and divided, and more often biting. While some acknowledged the contributions of cyber and drone warriors and said the award was the right thing to do, others dubbed the medal the "Geek Cross" and speculated that young video-gamers may soon get Purple Hearts for their animated wounds.

Over the last decade of war, remotely piloted Predators and Reapers have become a critical weapon to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes 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, cyberattacks 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 Pentagon does not publicly discuss its offensive cyber operations or acts of cyberwarfare. Considering that secrecy, it's not clear how public such awards might be in the future. The federal government, for example, launched a broad leak investigation after reports surfaced that the U.S. and Israel may have been responsible for the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked computers in Iran's main nuclear enrichment facilities.

According to the Pentagon criteria, the medal gives the military a way to recognize a single act that directly affects a combat operation, doesn't involve an act of valor, and warrants an award higher than the Bronze Star.

"The extraordinary achievement must have resulted in an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar situations," according to the Pentagon. It could include the "hands-on" but remote launching of a weapon and could specifically include efforts in space or cyberspace.

The medal is a brass pendant, nearly two inches tall, with a laurel wreath that circles a globe. There is an eagle in the center.

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  • Lahore

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  • Manila

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  • Islamabad

    American anti-war coalition CodePink activists, protest while fasting to condemn U.S. drone attacks in Pakistani tribal region, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 in Islamabad, Pakistan. The placard, center, reads, "fasting for peace." (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

  • New York

    Nick Mottern of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., hands out information to a passerby as he stands beneath a model of an unmanned drone, which he labeled an "unmanned assasination vehicle" during an anti-war teach-in as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest now in its fourth week at Zuccotti Park in New York, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Washington DC

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  • Lahore

    Activists of the Pakistani fundamentalist Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) shout slogans against the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis and an US drone strike in the Pakistani tribal area, during a protest rally in Lahore on March 18, 2011. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Islamabad

    A Pakistani boy holds a placard during the second day of protests against the US drone attacks along with tribesmen of north Waziristan in Islamabad on December 10, 2010. (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Washington DC

    Members of Pax Christi USA, Foreign Policy in Focus, CODEPINK and other organizations, mock and protest the unmanned US drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan on October 7, 2010 at Union Station in Washington DC. (KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Multan

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  • Islamabad

    American citizens rally in Islamabad, Pakistan against drone attacks in Pakistani tribal belt, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

  • North Carolina

    Protesters march with a drone effigy outside Duke Energy headquarters in Uptown, the Charlotte the business district, before the start of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) September 2, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    Thomas Bolanos holds an American flag as he joins others in a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Largo, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    Dina Formentini (C) and Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin (R) join others in a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Largo, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin holds a sign reading, 'Raytheon's Drones Create Enemies,' as she joins others in a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Largo, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    Clay Colson holds a sign reading, ' Healthcare not Warfare!', as he joins others in a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Largo, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin holds a sign reading, 'Raytheon's Drones Create Enemies,' as she listens to a police officer ask the group to move to a public sidewalk durin a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Largo, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    Liz, who only wanted to be identified by her first name, holds a sign reading, 'Obama's Drones Kill Americans, Too,' as she joins others in a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Largo, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Florida

    James L. holds a sign reading, ' Obama is just another war prez ', as he joins others in a protest in front of a Raytheon company building which they say is building military drones on August 23, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

  • Philippines

    Protesters display placards during a rally near the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines, on Friday Jan. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

  • Philippines

    Protesters march towards the U.S. Embassy in Manila with a mock model of a U.S. drone Friday Jan. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

  • YEMEN-UNREST-DEMO-DRONE

    Yemenis hold up a sign in Arabic that reads, 'No to Foreign Intervention...No to American Terrorism' during a protest against US drone attacks on Yemen close to the home of Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, in the capital Sanaa, on January 28, 2013. Strikes by US drones in Yemen nearly tripled in 2012 compared to 2011, with 53 recorded against 18, according to the Washington-based think-tank New America Foundation. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

  • YEMEN-UNREST-DEMO-DRONE

    A Yemeni hold up a banner during a protest against US drone attacks on Yemen close to the home of Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, in the capital Sanaa, on January 28, 2013. Strikes by US drones in Yemen nearly tripled in 2012 compared to 2011, with 53 recorded against 18, according to the Washington-based think-tank New America Foundation. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)