Collateral damage on the 21st century battlefield: enemy exploitation of the law of armed conflict, and the struggle for a moral high ground

Citation metadata

Author: Jefferson D. Reynolds
Date: Winter 2005
From: Air Force Law Review(Vol. 56)
Publisher: U.S. Air Force Academy, Department of Law
Document Type: Article
Length: 39,538 words

Main content

Article Preview :


"Whoso obeyeth Allah and the messenger, they are with those unto whom Allah hath shown favor, of the prophets and the saints and the martyrs and the righteous. The best of company are they."

The Koran, Surah IV, Ayah 69

Subordinate only to a state's decision to wage war, effective targeting of the adversary is the most important and decisive part of successful warfare. Target selection requires military planners and strategists to develop tactical, operational and strategic target sets that destroy the adversary's centers of gravity to compel capitulation, surrender or defeat. Although collateral damage (1) has historically been an important factor in the targeting cycle, its prominence and visibility have grown as battlefield tactics become more antagonistic and less aligned with humanitarian interests and the law of armed conflict (LOAC). The avoidance of collateral damage can even be determinative for nations like the United States (U.S.) who value LOAC. (2) A decision based on avoidance becomes problematic where key objectives cannot be targeted because of an adversary's invitation or fabrication of collateral damage to discredit operations. Any targeting decision must be premised on LOAC; however, a decision based on avoidance must carefully evaluate the loss of initiative and tactical superiority, the increasing and persistent nature of these events in the context of a well organized strategy, and the effect on tactical, operational and strategic objectives. Adversaries will improve methods to effectuate collateral damage in an effort to complicate attack planning, promote disinformation campaigns, deter attack, exploit humanitarian interests and, ultimately, improve survivability.

This study illustrates a rising trend in the frequency and severity of adversary violations of LOAC and humanitarian principles to gain a strategic advantage. A proposed solution to this problem requires attacking target sets that are prohibited according to some humanitarian interest groups, improving awareness and understanding of collateral damage, promoting the application of emerging technology, including non-lethal technology, and the use of aggressive information campaigns designed to expose deceptive reports of collateral damage. The study is divided into six sections. Part II provides a parallel review of U.S. targeting strategy, collateral damage, civilian immunity, and the development of LOAC. Although a number of significant incidents of collateral damage are reviewed, this section is not intended to be exhaustive for each conflict studied. Rather, this section illustrates particular events, strategies and principles that contribute to an analysis of LOAC and collateral damage. Part III discusses the application of LOAC to different types of adversaries. With an emphasis on the International Criminal Court, Part IV describes significant problems associated with the prosecution of crimes involving collateral damage. Part V illustrates that violations of LOAC and strategies provoking collateral damage provide the greatest assurance of survival and strategic success for adversaries. Part VI examines specific targeting principles of LOAC, and demonstrates that attempts to reduce the number of permissible target sets may result in greater danger to the civilian population. This section also examines methods to effectively counter an adversary's attempts to discredit operations where collateral damage...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Reynolds, Jefferson D. "Collateral damage on the 21st century battlefield: enemy exploitation of the law of armed conflict, and the struggle for a moral high ground." Air Force Law Review, vol. 56, winter 2005, pp. 1+. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A133368631