18 March 2003
U.S. Air Force Uses New Tools to Minimize Civilian Casualties
(Avoiding unintentional damage figures into targeting from start)
By David Anthony Denny
Washington File Staff Writer
Langley Air Force Base, Virginia -- The art and science of minimizing
both civilian casualties and the destruction of cultural sites, homes,
businesses, schools, hospitals, and other non-military assets in
warfare has come a remarkably long way in little more than half a
century, especially in the area of air warfare.
In World War II, 60 million people, civilians and combatants alike,
were killed. The combined U.S. and British air campaigns in Europe and
Japan alone are thought to have killed more than a million civilians.
On occasion, tens of thousands of civilians perished in a single night
bombing raid involving hundreds of bombers flying over Dresden,
Germany, and Tokyo, to give the two most notable examples. Then, at
the very end of that war, single bombers dropping single nuclear bombs
caused scores of thousands of civilian deaths in Hiroshima and
These days, discussions about civilian casualties involve much-reduced
orders of magnitude. A recent Washington Post story, for example,
cited a figure of 500 civilians killed in Serbia after 78 days of NATO
air strikes in 1999. In Afghanistan in 2001-02, a figure of 800
civilian deaths is cited.
Major General David Deptula, the director of plans and programs at Air
Combat Command Headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton,
Virginia, said even the figure of 800 dead in Afghanistan "sounds high
to me." Deptula is in a position to know because he served as director
of the air operations center for the first three months the Operation
Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Deptula is skeptical because avoiding civilian casualties and
unintentional, or collateral, damage is a key consideration of every
attack assignment contemplated by U.S. air forces, right from the
initiation of the planning process, days, weeks, months or even years
before a strike occurs. He knows that the imperative to cause as
little damage and as little loss of life as possible is part of a
larger concept that has evolved in the Air Force's thinking.
Deptula calls that way of thinking "effects-based operations." Neither
a process, nor a system, nor even a methodology, says Deptula, it is
"more of a way of thinking, in the broadest sense," he said.
"Ultimately, my definition of the goal of warfare is to be able to
have an adversary act in accordance with U.S. strategic interests. In
a perfect world, I'd like to be able to get that adversary to act in
accordance with our strategic interests without [him or her] even
knowing that they've been acted upon," Deptula said.
Precision, he says, is the key to effects-based operations, and has
thus allowed the Air Force to be highly discriminating as it targets.
"In World War II, it took us a thousand aircraft -- bombers, B-17s --
carrying approximately 9,000 bombs to achieve the effect that in the
Gulf War one airplane and one bomb could do. An F-117 with a
laser-guided bomb (LGB) could do what a thousand-plane raid could do
in World War II. And the reason is: precision. The circular error
probability (CEP) of a weapon in World War II was on the order of half
a mile -- 3,000 feet. The CEP of an LGB is on the order of 10 feet. So
you can see what you can do with precision, which dramatically
increased our capability of minimized damage and destruction," Deptula
Deptula, who was also the principal air planner for the Gulf War in
1991, gave a cogent example from that war to demonstrate effects-based
operations. The Iraqis had 26 electric power plants that were listed
on the U.S. and coalition target list. Partway through the air
campaign, Deptula said intelligence analysts came to him and noted
that operations against the electric power facilities had not been
successfully carried out.
Deptula's response was, "That's right. I'd stopped targeting or
putting [electricity sites] on the target master attack plan 10 days
prior because there weren't any electrons flowing in the Iraqi power
grid. The issue is not destruction of the sites; the issue is making
sure the electricity wasn't flowing.
"In some cases, we had communications intelligence that let us know
that some of the power plant directors figured out early on the way to
avoid getting hit was to shut down their plants. Which," Deptula
noted, "from a planner's perspective, is wonderful. That's exactly
what I want to have happen."
More recently, Deptula noted that as U.S. and coalition forces patrol
the Northern and Southern No-Fly Zones over Iraq (Deptula was
commander of Operation Northern Watch from 1998 to 1999) they have had
to contend with Iraqis parking mobile surface-to-air missile systems
in close proximity to civilian sites. The solution? "I began using
inert weapons -- cement bombs," Deptula said.
"I can't use a 500-pound, high-explosive bomb against a missile
launcher if it's parked within X-thousand feet of any civilian
facility. But if I've got good enough precision, and I can hit it with
500 pounds of concrete, that does the trick. So we began doing that,"
Target planners have plenty of help, including input from military
lawyers and intelligence analysts. For Brigadier General Charles
Dunlap, staff judge advocate at Air Combat Command, it's a matter of
being on the right side of the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). Dunlap
says law "is becoming a (and sometimes 'the') key factor influencing
the conduct of combat air operations."
LOAC draws guidance from customary international law and international
agreements. Dunlap points out that not all combatants are parties to
the same international agreements which can cause problems. Under the
United Nations Charter, he said, force is authorized in two
situations: self defense; and when authorized by the Security Council.
Dunlap noted that "For democracies waging modern war, LOAC is
indispensable for military success." He referred to the Prussian
military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, who described a "remarkable
trinity" connecting the government to the people to the military. All
three are needed to wage war successfully, according to Clausewitz.
"Adversaries fighting today's democracies will use the fact or
perception of LOAC violations to shatter Clausewitz's 'remarkable
trinity' by separating the people from their military and their
government," Dunlap said.
The February issue of Air Force Magazine put it this way: "A
perception of poor conduct by a belligerent erodes the just cause of
the war and undermines its legitimacy because causing unnecessary
deaths or damage is seen as counter to international norms and
customs. In modern coalition warfare, attention to the law of war is a
This has led to a situation in which U.S. adversaries can be expected
to wage what Dunlap calls "lawfare," by which he means specific
strategies designed to exploit sensitivity to casualties by creating
the perception of a violation of the law of war.
He points to the 2002 edition of Jane's World Armies, in which Editor
Charles Heyman predicts that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein "is going to
make sure civilians get killed. And he is going to make sure that all
over the world, there are pictures of weeping Iraqi mothers and their
dead babies. That's part and parcel of his game."
Dunlap notes that military lawyers play an increasingly important role
in shaping the decisions that a commander makes to attack or avoid
Dunlap pointed out that the laws of war do not forbid civilian
casualties or damage to civilian objects, but they call for careful
discrimination and proportionality. In this case, discrimination means
doing everything feasible to avoid striking civilians and civilian
objects, he said. Discrimination includes the increasingly thorny
issue of who is a civilian and who is a combatant. Voluntary and
involuntary human shields, military contractors and even armed
tribesmen all might figure into the legal calculations during possible
military action in Iraq.
Dunlap says proportionality involves a balancing test in which
anticipated harm to non-combatants and their property must not be
excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage
anticipated. Risks of unintentional damage can sometimes be mitigated
by tactics, sometimes by choice of weapon.
This is where intelligence has a role in determining which targets are
militarily valuable and how best to attack those that meet that test.
Colonel Donald Hudson is deputy chief of intelligence at Air Combat
Command headquarters at Langley. He points out that target sets can be
started years before a site is attacked, with what is called a
standard engagement plan that is continually updated, especially once
action is imminent. Target folders are examined to see what is in
proximity to the target, and targeters are still examining the
intended target right up to the start of the mission, he said. A key
question in updating target information is: What is the enemy doing to
try to shield the target?
For Colonel Hudson and his fellow analysts, if collateral damage is a
potential problem with a target, they have a new tool they can employ
to help decision-making. A computer software program called the Fast
Assessment Strike Tool -- Collateral Damage (FAST-CD)looks at the
target, its surrounding terrain, the direction and angle of attack,
and the particular characteristics of the munition proposed for the
strike and generates an image of an irregular-shaped "probable damage
field" that looks somewhat like insects hitting a car windshield at
The value of the program, a version of which was first used for
planning purposes in Operation Desert Fox (1998), is its speed. It now
takes as little as 15-to-30 minutes to generate a predicted result
using FAST-CD, instead of the two hours to several days that was once
If it looks like collateral damage can't be avoided, then intelligence
analysts recommend against a strike to the joint force commander,
according to Hudson. "And lawyers sit next to us throughout" the
process, he added.
Notwithstanding the combination of the mindset of effects-based
operations, the scrupulous adherence to the law of armed conflict, and
the latest high-technology computer software to predict outcomes,
warfighting "remains an art," not a science, lawyer Dunlap said. "Some
things reside in the mind of the commander," he said. The tools that
allow the minimization of civilian casualties and collateral damage
"are not a substitute" for decisions taken by the commander, he said.
And as several intelligence analysts noted, there is still the human
factor of a pilot who is not infallible and must make split-second
decisions, and who operates mechanical or sensitive electronic
equipment that can hiccup under stressful combat conditions. For these
reasons, air combat professionals don't expect the issue of civilian
casualties and collateral damage to be perfectly resolved anytime soon
-- if ever.
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
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