Coalition to make painstaking effort to avoid Iraqi civilian damage

By Jacquelyn S. Porth, Washington File Security Affairs Writer
Washington - If the use of force becomes necessary in Iraq, coalition military forces will take considerable care to minimize civilian deaths and damage to civilian infrastructure, educational institutions, medical facilities, and religious and cultural institutions.

Even today, as coalition aircraft patrol the northern and southern No-Fly Zones in Iraq, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has instructed pilots not to target civilian populations or infrastructure. A March 5 CENTCOM release, for example, notes that during routine air patrols to eliminate potentially threatening Iraqi mobile surface-to-air missile batteries, coalition aircraft "go to painstaking lengths to avoid injury to civilians and damage to civilian facilities."

While there is always a margin for error by man or machine - and the confusion and chaos of war can contribute to inadvertent damage - the reality is that technology has improved exponentially since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraq's grasp.

During the Gulf war, the U.S. military used new precision-guided munitions (PGMs), but quantities were not unlimited. Twenty percent of the total bombs dropped were PGMs, but if called upon to wage war in 2003, the U.S. military expects 70 percent of its weapons will be precision-guided.

In the Gulf War, older technology required as many as 16 to 18 coalition aircraft strikes against a single target. Today, the same target will require only one aircraft to fulfill its strike mission.

A senior CENTCOM official says "the ability to be that [much] more precise, intuitively tells me that there should be fewer casualties." The precision capability that now exists "allows us to keep civilian casualties to a lower number than we've ever seen in the past," he added.

In fact, the goal to mitigate the effects of civilian, or "collateral" damage, as it is euphemistically referred to, is ingrained in the U.S. military from the first officer whose task it is to identify appropriate targets to the individual in theater who finally presses the button to launch a strike. "We still have to look at the surrounding area to determine if we'll cause collateral damage," the official said.

Mitigating the effects of war can be accomplished by making adjustments in a variety of ways:

  • selecting a size of a weapon tailored to the target

  • the smaller the better;

  • adjusting the angle of attack so that associated fragmentation has diminished consequences;

  • choosing to detonate the weapons above, at, or below the target as a way of shrinking its spill over effect;

  • timing the attack so that a target is least likely to be populated;

  • providing advance warning to local populations to avoid certain targets; and

  • using non-lethal means or non-explosive weapons to shut down targets.

As commander-in-chief, President Bush communicates the goal of protecting civilians from the top of the leadership structure. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld amplifies his message through the media saying, "the lives and freedom of the Iraqi people matter ... greatly to us." Further, Bush has said, "We will try in every way we can to spare innocent life. The people of Iraq are not enemies."

General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NBC Today recently that "we will go to extraordinary lengths to protect non-combatants and civilians and facilities that should not be struck." Doing so is always part of the plan, he said, as the military and civilian leadership reviews the targeting process, including aim points and types of weapons "over and over again" in an effort to achieve the desired military outcome without causing an undue effect on non-combatants or nearby civilian structures.

Protecting civilians remains "at the heart of international law of armed conflict," according to a Pentagon public affairs officer familiar with the subject. U.S. doctrine dictates that targets be strictly military while exercising "extraordinary care to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties and to minimize collateral damage," according to the official, who went on to point out that the Iraqi regime does the opposite by flaunting the laws of war and co-locating military and civilian facilities together to blur the distinction between the two.

During a March 5 background briefing on the military targeting process, a senior CENTCOM official said the coalition that might see future action in Iraq has been sensitized to the need to preserve Iraq's ability to grow and prosper in a post-conflict era. It is important, he said, that Iraq's economy be recoverable when military operations cease, and the way to ensure that is to keep collateral damage "to a minimum."

The use of advanced target modeling allows targeteers "to be pretty predictive" about the amount of damage that will occur around the outside perimeter of a designated target, the official said. He noted an example from Afghanistan when a meeting of al-Qaeda leaders was struck with pinpoint precision while adjacent buildings on three surrounding sides were undamaged.

"I don't want to say there will be no damage. I don't want to say there will be no casualties," he said, "but there is a very good way to try to keep the number of casualties and the damage to the minimum."

Asked if dropping leaflets on civilian populations and broadcasting warnings to stay clear of certain targets is viewed as effective, the official said: "Absolutely." He related another anecdote from Afghanistan, where some Afghanis said: "We saw you so precise with your targeting that we weren't afraid. We felt comfortable that we could stay in our house and you wouldn't hurt us."

"We stay clear of sites that are intended to be protected," the official said, "like schools, mosques, civil buildings that have no military value, certainly residence areas." A problem may arise if Iraq decides to put missiles or anti-aircraft guns inside a protected site.

The U.S. military is also carefully planning how to minimize any threat to neighboring areas from Iraqi chemical or biological sites which coalition forces hope to find and neutralize. There are a number of ways to do this, the official said. It could include striking the production plant that powers a chem-bio site to render it inoperative. Or, access could be denied through the use of air-delivered self-destructing mines that would keep anyone from entering and removing property for 24 to 48 hours. Finally, such sites could be secured with special operations forces. All these measures avoid the problem of calling in air strikes against storage depots or production plants that could produce dangerous plumes of toxic agents.

There has also been discussion about using non-lethal weapons to mitigate collateral damage. The official said, for example, that it isn't always necessary to use explosive weapons. In some places, he said, a non-kinetic tool such as "a concrete-filled bomb as opposed to an explosive bomb" might be the safest choice to obliterate a target.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: