Whereas there can be no doubt that Rules of Engagement (RoE) are important in determining how, when, where and against who armed force shall be used, are we not sometimes restricting ourselves with RoE and in the result causing the deaths of our own soldiers?
In Operations Related to War (ORW), the RoE are really very straightforward, especially as one of the aims of war is the annihilation of the enemy force. However, care still needs to be exercised in order to prevent civilian casualties or causing unnecessary, excessive damage to private property. But even in well planned and executed ORW, it is not always possible to prevent civilian casualties or minimise damage to property, especially in and around urban environments.
It is, however, when we embark on Operations Other than War (OOTW) that these rules can become restrictive and, in many instances, counterproductive. “Don’t shoot until you are shot at” is difficult to accept when you know a sniper is tracking your movements.
RoE, and the approach to applying such rules, differ from culture to culture. Furthermore, OOTW are often applicable to hostile environments and an enemy that does not abide by any laws, be they local, regional or international.
Whereas it is commonly accepted that excessive force in OOTW will result in alienating the local population and cause resentment which may strengthen the cause of the rebels/terrorists/insurgents, the rules still need to be very carefully crafted.
Ultimately, the RoE are applicable to both military and law enforcement operations that take place within the scope of both ORW and OOTW and are aimed at:
1. Preventing own forces casualties
2. Increasing force legitimacy
3. Minimising collateral damage
4. Preventing unnecessary civilian casualties
5. Increasing operational legitimacy.
Any commander’s aim is to, apart from achieving mission success, prevent casualties amongst his own forces whilst increasing the casualties amongst the enemy’s forces. But sometimes the RoE appear to disregard this fact in favour of not upsetting the politicians, the enemy or the media.
When the RoE are so restrictive that a commander cannot perform his mission effectively, tension will inevitably develop between the political masters and the military commanders. When the restrictive RoE leads to own forces casualties, the tensions are bound to escalate.
As all military operations are politically driven, too restrictive rules place the commanders at a disadvantage. When the political masters decide to use military force to achieve their political or diplomatic ambitions or objectives, they ought to consider that the lives that may be lost due to their restrictions could lead to operational disasters and a drop in morale, both on the battlefield and on the home front.
But, military incompetence should not be hidden behind or blamed on restrictive RoE. Blunders such as the so-called peacekeeping missions in Africa are commonly blamed on too restrictive RoE. The lack of will, the inability to gather and act on intelligence or develop sound military strategies is usually ignored at best or simply never mentioned.
On the other hand, too loose RoE can lead to the indiscriminate use of armed force against whoever passes through the sights. Whereas it may appear that artillery and air strikes on densely populated urban areas may break the morale of the enemy and the civilian population, these actions also violate international law as they are construed as “excessive and indiscriminate force” – which they are.
When crafting RoE, we ought to remember that the world has become a tough neighbourhood. If we wish to play in this neighbourhood, we ought to show our toughness – not by allowing our troops to be killed by the enemy but by killing the enemy. We can only do this if we know “who” the enemy is.
Knowing “who” the enemy is requires intelligence that is verified. In ORW this is, again, relatively simple as a state of war exists between two nations. We know who we are fighting. In OOTW, a lack of intelligence allows us to either view the “enemy” as the local population or the local population as the “enemy”. This confusing view on the “enemy” results in RoE that restrict offensive action – one of the fundamental principles of land warfare. In turn, this gives the enemy the initiative.
The lack of intelligence and the loss of the initiative may result in the rebels/insurgents/terrorists resorting to criminal activities to fund their operations. This can result in extortion, kidnapping for ransom, armed robberies and other financially rewarding crimes.
I disagree that today’s wars are either won or lost at the political level. A lack of real progress on the battlefield or in the area of operations, coupled to increased casualty figures, increased defence spending vs lack of results, resentment from the local population, negative media coverage, a decline of morale on the home front and so forth may add to the political pressures to leave a conflict area. But, this is a direct result of the military action.
Without intelligence, we cannot craft sensible Rules of Engagement. The lack of sensible RoE gives the enemy an opportunity to exploit the perceived lack of “fighting spirit”. Not understanding the cultural environment we operate in amplifies this problem.
Whereas Rules of Engagement are important, they should be based on sound intelligence and an understanding of the operational environment and not sacrifice operational freedom or expose troops to unnecessary danger.