- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced Wednesday that the Pentagon is creating a new medal for cyberwarriors and drone pilots.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal would honor service members who “are physically removed” from the fight and whose contributions “do not involve acts of valor of physical risk that combat entails” but make a difference in combat operations.

“During my time as director of the CIA, I’ve seen firsthand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars are fought,” Mr. Panetta said at the Pentagon in what will most likely be his last news conference as defense secretary.

Mr. Panetta also commented about various hot spots around the world and issues that his nominated successor, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, will face. Mr. Panetta is expected to step down as early as Thursday.

On North Korea’s nuclear test this week, he said the U.S. is trying to determine whether it succeeded, adding that the U.S. military will “take all necessary steps” to fulfill commitments to allies on the Korean Peninsula.

Mr. Panetta said he spoke with his South Korean counterpart earlier Wednesday, and said the Pentagon will continue to conduct training exercises in the region and work with South Korea and Japan to bolster missile defenses.

Syria remains a “great concern,” he said. “I think this is not only a tragic situation [but the international community] has to take steps to do whatever we can to ensure that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad does step down.”

Mr. Panetta also addressed the automatic spending cuts that are set to begin March 1, saying he would strongly urge Congress to heed the Joint Chiefs’ warnings on how the cuts would cripple readiness.

The Pentagon’s fiscal uncertainty is “something that other countries are looking at to determine whether or not we can in fact resolve that,” he said.

“This is not a game. This is reality,” he said. “People are being hurt by the budget uncertainty. There are salaries that are being cut. There are jobs that are being lost.”

In addition, Mr. Panetta said he is pleased by President Obama’s decision to halve the number of troops in Afghanistan to 34,000 by this time next year. The transition of security responsibilities to Afghan troops is “well on track,” he said.

He praised Marine Gen. John Allen, the former top commander in Afghanistan, as “an outstanding commander,” and said history would see him as pivotal.

In a related matter, the Pentagon has given Gen. Allen time off to rest before facing a Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to be NATO’s next supreme commander, defense officials said Wednesday, pushing back against reports that he is considering abandoning the nomination.

“After 19 months in command in Afghanistan, and many before that spent away from home, Gen. Allen has been offered time to rest and reunite with his family before he turns his attention to his next assignment,” defense spokesman Army Lt. Col. Steven Warren said Wednesday.

“It’s normal to take leave after coming home from a war,” Col. Warren said, adding that the four-star general’s nomination is still active.

Foreign Policy magazine and other media outlets reported Wednesday that Gen. Allen is thinking about abandoning the nomination in order to avoid questions about his emails to a married Florida socialite.

The Pentagon’s inspector general last year investigated possibly inappropriate emails he had exchanged with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley that were found during an FBI investigation of former CIA Director David H. Petraeus, and cleared Gen. Allen of any wrongdoing.

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