Rules of Engagement and New Technology: Limiting Factors

War can be a messy affair, and not just in the traditional sense of carnage and blood. The Law of War is a complex set of rules for engaging the enemy, when to engage the enemy and even dictates if a war or combat action is legal at all. It’s easy to perfect laws and rules of engagement based off the last war, but as new technology emerges, it is difficult to see how the tech will be employed in combat and if it is legal. Rules of Engagement can be perceived as a limiting factor for employing new technology, just as new technology can make it difficult to craft effective laws.

No one wants to see the atrocities and horrors of WWII or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda played out again, in real time. And soldiers certainly do not want to be a part of some drawn out court drama. Rules of Engagement need to be clear cut and well defined so any soldier venturing into potential combat can have peace of mind when he engages the enemy. During my first deployment, I felt confidently trained up in when to engage the enemy and how to identify insurgents. Our ROE was also effective in allowing us to engage hostiles.

Vietnam is often used as an example of a huge disconnect between acceptable Rules of Engagement and War Crimes. A disconnect leads to distrust between soldiers and commanders.

ROE becomes more important when you look at how modern wars have lately been fought. In WWI, you knew the enemy was the guy in the other trench, wearing a different uniform and you could kill him anytime, and as long as he wasn’t surrendering, it was fair game. As we fight against hostile populations and not necessarily hostile armies, we now need to identify enemies separately from the at-large population. This is done in a variety of ways, but it mostly boils down to if the someone has hostile intent or presents hostile force. Does someone who donated $15 to Hamas deserve to be executed on sight? Does someone who never committed an act of violence or martial support for Boko-Haram, but provided safe shelter for their fighters deserve to be killed? These are not glib questions, they are real scenarios that pose a moral and philosophical problem to war-planners and even everyday soldiers.

The reason questions like these are so important, is because with our current level of technology, we can identify a terrorist financier, or a terrorist shelter owned by a civilian. Precise targeting by drones, missiles and other “smart” tech would allow us to easily level a house, or find, track and kill a financier. There are examples of his happening, but it goes through a long legal process. Many Military units run their strikes and raids by a lawyer prior to giving it the “go-ahead”. This works, for the most part, but as technology increases and becomes available to lower-level, non-specialized soldiers, either the technology will be employed less due to ROE or the ROE will be reformed.

In simpler times, the enemy was in a uniform, waiting in a foxhole for you. Simpler, but more violent times.

Different levels of warfare, tactical, operational and strategic all dictate different levels of planning and engagement. Massive bombing runs, artillery strikes and months long campaigns are not the domain of tactical combat, and a Private First Class would not have a need to call in a nuclear strike on a position. But a PFC may have a need to call in a drone strike, or to reasonably target an enemy based off of surveillance from a drone or aerial platform. ROE should recognize this new ability, but it is difficult to quantify. That live feed from a surveillance tower might be of a man and his son loading pipes into the ground and not IED’s… A Specialist that makes a mistake in engaging and killing these two men, who, based off the information available were hostile fighters, runs the risk of being branded a war criminal, and worse, deals with the guilt everyday. A Sergeant too afraid to engage, runs the risk of seeing his boys with their guts spilled out on the Afghan plains, and deals with the guilt everyday. Just as we empower our lower leaders to make critical decisions, we should also empower them to use all technology available in a legal, justifiable manner. The difficulty is when a mistake is made in the fog of war, are they now branded war criminals, or is our legal and moral system prepared to take on the tough questions that new technology poses? I do not think it is though.

Why should a Specialist be restricted from using a drone strike against a heavy machine gun nest? Why should a Captain be able to deem a whole subset of a population hostile? Those in the actual brunt of the combat, the lower enlisted Combat Arms folks, will want to use any advantage they may have over an enemy to preserve their own lives, the lives of their buddies and to maintain a high level of combat readiness. Restricting use of a tactical weapon based off of rank is an absurd decision.

At the end of the day, I believe we need to base our use of technology and our ROE off of who does the fighting and dying. Unless the decision is made to wholesale slaughter an area, leaders will always have hesitation for fear of making a wrong mistake and ending up behind bars. This fear can be a healthy thing for soldiers with blood that runs hot at times, but it also can cost lives. To combat this, we first need to thoroughly integrate our technology at all levels, not just with the “Cool Guys” and make sure our leaders are comfortable, effective and knowledgeable in making a decision with that new technology that could end a life. We can’t peel back either once they are let out of the can.

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One thought on “Rules of Engagement and New Technology: Limiting Factors

  1. Pingback: Quick Hits: Cleared to Engage – Steel and Stylus

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