An Improved Approach to Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response: The Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP)


| Aug 25, 2022


The imperative to mitigate civilian harm during armed conflict is rooted in important humanitarian, moral, and legal bases. It is also “fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient, and decisive use of force in pursuit of U.S. national interests” (Executive Order 13732). For instance, as commentators have emphasized, limiting civilian casualties “is a key part of a winning strategy.” An improved approach to civilian harm mitigation and response leads to better strategic outcomes and as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has noted, both a “strategic and moral imperative.”

To that end, on 27 January 2022, Secretary of Defense Austin issued a memorandum directing the creation of a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) to identify concrete steps the Department will take to improve how it mitigates and responds to civilian harm caused by combat operations. The Secretary directed that the CHMR-AP outline the steps the Department will take, and the resources that will be required, to implement appropriate recommendations from recently-completed studies of civilian harm sponsored by DoD, DoD Office of the Inspector General evaluations, and independent reviews. Additionally, the Secretary required the CHMR-AP set forth the steps to: (1) establish a civilian protection center of excellence; (2) develop more standardized civilian harm operational reporting and data management processes; (3) review guidance and its associated implementation relating to response to civilian harm, including condolence payments and public acknowledgement of harm; and (4) incorporate CHMR across the full spectrum of armed conflict into doctrine and operational plans. (This memorandum was further supplemented on 17 May 2022 with an additional memorandum directing the incorporation of additional guidance as well as recommendations from the independent review into the 18 March 2019 civilian casualty incident in Baghuz, Syria.)

To implement this guidance, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy convened a team of subject matter experts from across DoD to review recommendations and draft the action plan for the Secretary’s approval. This team—the CHMR-AP Tiger Team—further consulted with experts from other U.S. government departments and agencies, and external experts from a range of academic, international, and nongovernmental organizations. Likewise, senior leaders from across DoD reviewed the plan to consider its operational implications and provide feedback.  The result of this collaborative effort, released on 25 August 2022, is an action plan that creates an institutional architecture and supporting processes to mitigate and respond to civilian harm by optimizing the efficacy of U.S. military operations.

The following are the key objectives of the CHMR-AP and an explanation of how they will serve to improve DoD’s CHMR approach.

  1. Establish a CHMR Steering Committee for the purpose of providing executive-level direction, guidance, and oversight of DoD CHMR, including by driving effective implementation of the CHMR-AP and the forthcoming DoD Instruction on CHMR across the DoD.

Any complex effort requires an enduring structure to oversee its effective implementation. This is especially true of the CHMR-AP, which addresses multiple facets of DoD’s structure and activity. DoD, therefore, is creating a senior-level CHMR Steering Committee to provide executive leadership and oversight during implementation and execution of the CHMR-AP; oversee finalization and implementation of a forthcoming DoD Instruction on CHMR, which will provide an overarching and enduring policy framework for CHMR; and provide more general senior-level oversight related to CHMR. This reflects DoD’s recognition that the implementation of the CHMR-AP and continued improvement of the DoD approach to CHMR will require Department-wide coordination and sustained senior-level emphasis and engagement. The Steering Committee will enable the Department to address any friction points, resourcing challenges, and bureaucratic inertia in the implementation of CHMR-AP over the coming years.

  1. Establish a Civilian Protection Center of Excellence to expedite and institutionalize the advancement of knowledge, practices, and tools for preventing, mitigating, and responding to civilian harm.

 A Center of Excellence can be defined as “as a premier organization providing exceptional products and services in an assigned area of expertise with unique requirements and capabilities.” The Civilian Protection Center of Excellence (CP CoE) is the institutional centerpiece of the CHMR-AP and a critical element of DoD’s new CHMR approach. This center will guide DoD’s understanding of the capabilities and practices that support civilian harm mitigation and response; serve as the hub and facilitator of Department-wide analysis, learning, and strategic approaches to institutionalize good practices for civilian harm mitigation and response during operations; and provide a range of capabilities to the force. The CP CoE will achieve that by providing direct support to operational commands; supporting policy, doctrine, and force development; and conducting research and analysis.

More specifically, DoD envisions that the CP CoE will be a robust analytic organization able to conduct in-house analysis, manage an ambitious analytic agenda, and convene relevant stakeholders. It is critical that the CP CoE be operational rather than academic in nature. More than just a think tank, the CP CoE will support efforts by operational commands to mitigate and respond to civilian harm in preparation for, during, and following operations. Such support will include, but not be limited to, informing the development of policies, guidance, standard operating procedures, and tools; supporting operational and contingency planning; identifying capability requirements; and analyzing, documenting, and disseminating lessons learned and good practices. To do so, the CP CoE may maintain a roster of deployable personnel who have been certified by the CP CoE and who can respond to requests for support.

The CP CoE will also support policy, doctrine, and force development, including by advising on relevant policies, regulations, standards, and doctrine; developing CHMR training for integration into professional military education, including to establish professional tracks and certification for key personnel and functions; integrating CHMR approaches in preparation for future battlefields as well as strategic competition where the United States is not engaged in armed conflict; and identifying and promoting the development and use of capabilities and tactics that support CHMR.

Through this ambitious range of activity, the CP CoE will serve as a central node to refine and improve DoD’s approach to civilian harm mitigation and response, and facilitate better strategic outcomes in future conflicts.

  1. Incorporate guidance for addressing civilian harm across the full spectrum of operations into strategy, doctrine, plans, professional military education, training, and exercises, so that DoD is more effectively prepared to mitigate and respond to civilian harm, and to achieve strategic success any operating environment.

A fundamental element of the CHMR-AP is the prioritization of civilian protection during the planning and conduct of military operations. DoD intends to achieve this by elevating the consideration of the civilian environment—including the civilian population, and the personnel, organizations, resources, infrastructure, essential services, and systems on which civilian life depends—as an integral component of the operational environment. In certain ways, this approach echoes the approach that DoD has taken to elevating the information environment in recent years in order to become more effective at information warfare.

To that end, the conceptual centerpiece of the CHMR-AP is the civilian environment. Although elements of CHMR exist throughout doctrine at various levels, no single cognitive framework exists to connect these elements, and the civilian environment is not defined in DoD doctrine. Clear articulation of strategic and operational objectives relative to the civilian environment and a robust understanding of key elements of the civilian environment will critically improve a commander’s ability to mitigate civilian harm while accomplishing mission objectives.

Through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has directed updates to joint doctrine, including Joint Publication (JP) 5-0, Joint Planning, JP 3-0, Joint Operations, and JP 2-0, Joint Intelligence to define and reflect the civilian environment. The Secretary has further directed that combatant commands incorporate into operational and contingency plans a description of the civilian environment, a clear articulation of objectives with respect to the civilian environment as part of overall mission objectives, an estimated assessment of the impact of operations on the civilian environment, plans for responding to civilian harm that may result, plans for the protection and restoration of the civilian environment, and a clear delineation of command authorities and relationships.

Concurrently, other changes to doctrine, exercises, training, and education will aid in inculcating these considerations, and to help effect these broad changes, the Secretary has ordered the placement of Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Officers and the establishment of Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Working Groups at a wide range of commands across the Joint force. These additional personnel will bring new focus and increased bandwidth to integrate CHMR considerations across DoD activities.

  1. Improve knowledge of the civilian environment and civilian harm mitigation capabilities and processes throughout the joint targeting process so that DoD is more effectively prepared to mitigate and respond to civilian harm in any future crisis or conflict.

To better mitigate civilian harm, robust information on the civilian environment needs to be made available to commanders and operators throughout the targeting process. For obvious reasons, intelligence collection has largely focused on analysis of the adversary. Enhancing the resources and capabilities dedicated to analyzing and characterizing the civilian environment will improve the ability of commanders to identify military objectives by distinguishing the non-adversarial aspects of the battlefield with greater clarity, especially in complex environments with multiple actors. As Geoffrey S. Corn and Michael W. Meier have noted, “expanding the commander’s aperture related to civilian risk considerations” can “better enable the commander to foresee and consider all attack effects, thereby enhancing both civilian protection and the legitimacy of attack judgments.”

To help achieve this objective, through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has directed the establishment of new teams at operational commands—referred to as Civilian Environment Teams– to assist commanders in understanding the civilian environment and assessing how actions by friendly and adversary forces may impact the civilian environment. Civilian Environment Teams will be composed of intelligence professionals; experts in human terrain, civilian infrastructure, and urban systems; and civil engineers.

Additionally, OSD, Joint Staff, and the military departments will develop the training, personnel, and equipment pipelines that provide combatant commands the skills necessary to improve the Joint force’s ability to preserve the civilian environment throughout operations. Notably, the Secretary has mandated a number of actions by force development commands to promote the advancement of weapons systems and battlespace awareness capabilities to enhance DoD’s ability to mitigate civilian harm. These advancements will leverage both established technologies and emerging technologies such as machine learning and augmented reality.

  1. Incorporate deliberate and systemic measures to mitigate the risks of target misidentification. This includes addressing cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias.

Although collateral damage is discussed more frequently as a cause of civilian harm, misidentification, including misperception and misassociation, is also a common cause that should be mitigated further. Misidentification, in turn, can be caused by cognitive bias.  Cognitive biases are natural human tendencies to rely on experiences or “pre-existing mental models” when thinking about issues and making decisions. Confirmation bias—one subset of cognitive bias—has been specifically highlighted as a contributing cause of misidentification and civilian casualties during military operations. For example, with respect to the 29 August 2021 airstrike near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, the DoD investigation into that incident found no violation of law, including the law of war, but “did find execution errors, combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns, that regrettably led to civilian casualties.” Confirmation bias has also been cited as a reason for misidentification in other reports.

To address this potential cause of civilian casualties, the CHMR-AP incorporates cognitive bias mitigation into guidance, education, training, and exercising, and bolsters the use of red teaming policies, procedures, and capabilities. The practice of “red teaming” can provide commanders and other decision-makers with an “independent capability to fully explore alternatives in plans, operations, concepts, organizations and capabilities in the context of the operational environment and from the perspectives of partners, adversaries and others.” Importantly, it can also provide “critical review and analysis of already-existing plans” and mitigate against the adverse effects of confirmation bias. Red teaming will be leveraged during planning, operations, and intelligence, including throughout the joint targeting process, to combat cognitive biases and mitigate the risks of target misidentification.

Additionally, the actions in the CHMR-AP address other potential causes of misidentification.  For instance, the CHMR-AP includes specific requirements for combatant commands to ensure that clear guidance is in place regarding positive identification, and for the Joint Staff to standardize the terminology used to communicate levels of certainty across joint operations and intelligence doctrine.

  1. Develop standardized civilian harm operational reporting and data management processes to improve how DoD collects, shares, and learns from data related to civilian harm, including from data integrated across disparate reviews, investigations, and events.

DoD’s ability to assess the impacts of military operations on civilians, analyze and learn from operations that result in civilian harm, report on the findings of these assessments, and respond to those harmed depends on reliable and effective data management practices. However, current data management practices are ad hoc and supported by each individual office. Instead, DoD requires an enterprise-wide, comprehensive data management platform and associated processes for civilian harm operational reporting and data management to improve DoD’s ability to mitigate and respond to civilian harm, including by facilitating accountability and transparency efforts regarding U.S. military operations.

Through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has therefore mandated the establishment of an enterprise-wide data management platform that will be employed uniformly across DoD for data related to civilian harm. This platform will incorporate information regarding U.S. operations, and multinational/partnered operations in which the U.S. participates, and, in addition to incorporating information from DoD sources, will include a mechanism for members of the public and other non-DoD entities to submit information regarding civilian harm.

  1. Establish Department-wide procedures for assessing and investigating civilian harm resulting from operations and expand the sources of information used in assessments and investigations.

U.S. policy states that U.S. government agencies shall conduct assessments that assist in the reduction of civilian casualties by identifying risks to civilians and evaluating efforts to reduce risks to civilians. In addition to enabling learning, such assessments help DoD to determine whether civilian harm resulted from operations; support information requirements of the chain of command, including external reporting requirements; and enable acknowledgements, and other responses to civilians harmed by operations, as appropriate. However, DoD’s processes for conducting assessments and investigations into civilian harm have been criticized frequently by members of Congress, media sources, and non-governmental organizations, leading to questions about DoD’s credibility and the responsible use of force. Additionally, DoD-sponsored studies have found that assessments and command-directed investigations into civilian harm have been applied inconsistently across DoD and have used limited sources of information, and that DoD commands are not appropriately resourced to conduct assessments and investigations.

Of course, even before the implementation of the CHMR-AP, the Secretary directed DoD to take steps to elevate existing civilian harm review and investigation procedures, emphasizing the importance of conducting thorough and timely reviews. The CHMR-AP, however, represents the next phase of DoD’s commitment to improve—and through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has required the standardization of civilian harm assessment and investigation processes and the improvement of resources available to commands. In revising the Department’s civilian harm assessment processes, DoD will draw upon appropriate aspects of DoD’s mishap and safety investigation processes as a model, and will focus on ensuring that assessments enable the Department to learn from civilian harm incidents. While some have criticized DoD’s shift over recent years to conducting civilian harm assessments (or, what have previously been referred to as “civilian casualty assessments”) rather than administrative investigations, the CHMR-AP includes a number of specific requirements to ­­­ensure that civilian harm assessments are a rigorous and effective mechanisms for assessing how U.S. military operations impact civilians. Recognizing that commanders will also continue to leverage administrative investigations, the Secretary has directed the development of standardized guidance for conducting investigations into incidents of civilian harm.

Additionally, moving forward, the Secretary has directed the Department to ensure that commands responsible for conducting civilian harm assessments and investigations have appropriate resources and expertise available. In particular, relevant commands will designate a senior official to serve as the Civilian Harm Assessment and Investigation Coordinator, who will oversee assessment and investigation processes. The Civilian Harm Assessment and Investigation Coordinator will also, among other duties, ensure deadlines associated with assessments, investigations, and required reporting are met. Relevant commands will additionally establish Civilian Harm Assessment Cells consisting of personnel with expertise in intelligence, fires, civilian-military relations, post-strike assessments, analyses, and/or relevant language skills.

These assessments and investigations will facilitate a greater quantity and quality of data which will support the CP CoE’s analytic role, will help DoD learn from incidents of civilian harm, and promote a virtuous cycle that permits continued improvement of DoD’s CHMR approach.

If, during the course of a civilian harm assessment, evidence demonstrates that a violation of the law of war or a crime may have occurred, the Civilian Harm Assessment Cell will ensure that information is included in the assessment and promptly reported through appropriate channels. Relatedly, as part of this objective, combatant commands will provide guidance for commanders and their staffs that address the range of potential accountability measures and corrective actions that, where appropriate, can be taken.

  1. Review DoD guidance on responding to civilian harm, including through, but not limited to, condolences and the public acknowledgement of harm, and update guidance and implementation processes, as appropriate.

 Consistent with DoD’s efforts to elevate consideration of the civilian environment throughout planning and operations, the Secretary has also directed DoD to expand its approach to acknowledging civilian harm that results from military operations and responding to those affected. The fundamental purposes of acknowledging and responding to civilian harm include expressing condolences to those affected and helping to address the direct impacts experienced. There are myriad ways in which these purposes can be accomplished, including by publicly or privately acknowledging and responding to those affected, at individual or community-levels, and through monetary or non-monetary means. Such actions may be taken in the immediate aftermath of an incident or at a later point when time allows.

To advance this objective, through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has directed DoD to take critical steps to improve the options available to commanders to acknowledge and respond to civilian harm, including ensuring the availability of a diverse range of tools which allow commanders to tailor contextually and culturally appropriate responses to civilian harm. The Secretary has further required DoD to establish Department-wide procedures for commanders to determine whether, how, and when to respond to civilian harm, and for consulting with and/or expressing condolences to those who have been harmed or representatives who can speak to their interests. Moreover, the Secretary has directed combatant commands to anticipate in their operational plans how subordinate commands will respond when civilian harm results from those operations.

  1. Establish and resource civilian harm mitigation and response as a component of security cooperation programs, and, as appropriate, implement tailored conditionality to promote ally and partner efforts.

 Although various efforts have been taken over time to leverage security cooperation to support ally and partner efforts to better mitigate civilian harm, or even to tailor security cooperation programs in response to civilian harm resulting from ally and partner operations, these efforts have generally been ad hoc as the Department lacks a comprehensive and systematic approach to incorporating CHMR into security cooperation programs.

Through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has articulated a significant shift in how DoD will incorporate CHMR into its security cooperation programs. Specifically, DoD will conduct CHMR baseline assessments of allies and partners, use these baseline assessments to develop and tailor security cooperation programs to improve ally and partner efforts to effectively and responsibly operate, and implement a policy of “tailored conditionality” to set expectations with partners that security cooperation programs are responsive to partners’ CHMR outcomes. To help implement these changes, DoD will prioritize key organizational and staffing adjustments, including the creation of a CHMR office at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and the establishment of Ally and Partner Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Officers at combatant commands, the military departments, and other relevant DoD components.

  1. Establish guidance, responsibilities, and processes for incorporating civilian harm mitigation and response during all phases of multinational operations and operations with non-state actors.

The U.S. military rarely operates independently and will commonly integrate with allies and partners through a range of different types of multinational operations and partnerships.

Through the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has therefore directed actions which support the application of CHMR policies and practices by DoD during all multinational operations and operations with non-state actors. This includes direction to establish as a matter of DoD policy that DoD will apply CHMR policies and practices in multinational operations and operations with non-state actors and encourage and support U.S. allies and partners to do the same. This approach will again leverage the same CHMR baseline assessments of allies and partners that were discussed in the previous objective when planning and conducting multinational operations and operations with non-state actors. The CHMR-AP also includes direction for combatant commands to incorporate CHMR into coalition campaign plans and similar planning documents, as well as into multinational training and exercise objectives. And, in recognition of the risks posed by inadequate information sharing among allies and partners, the CHMR-AP includes a number of actions to improve the U.S. military’s ability to share relevant information with allies and partners, including by improving partner-information sharing networks.

  1. Create dedicated positions for civilian harm mitigation and response efforts at OSD, Joint Staff, combatant commands, military departments, and other relevant DoD components, including in support of policy, planning, training, capabilities, doctrine, and operations, and ensure that combatant commands are postured to stand up civilian harm assessment cells for use during operations.

DoD components will require additional staffing and expertise to implement the significant actions set forth in the CHMR-AP. Therefore, in the final objective of the CHMR-AP, the Secretary has directed a number of critical actions that are necessary to address immediate staffing needs anticipated by the CHMR-AP and to more broadly identify and validate long-term enterprise-wide CHMR staffing requirements. Full allocation of personnel will rely upon the formalization of DoD-wide CHMR responsibilities, the completion of an enterprise-wide manpower study, and incorporation of resources into the budget.


These new innovations, together with the actions described above and enhancements to existing processes, create a mutually reinforcing framework that will serve to continuously improve DoD’s approach to civilian harm mitigation and response—an institutional ecosystem that will improve DoD’s understanding of the civilian environment, capability to mitigate and respond to civilian harm, and capacity to learn from its experience in this area.

The CHMR-AP cannot prevent all civilian harm during armed conflict, nor will it be the final word in DoD’s continuing efforts to improve how the U.S. military mitigates and responds to civilian harm. The CHMR-AP, however, is a significant step towards transforming the Department to more effectively prevent civilian harm caused by military operations and to respond appropriately when civilian harm occurs. Moreover, as we look toward the future of conflict, including with highly-capable adversaries, the efforts outlined above will be integral to informing the integration of CHMR across all domains (land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace); fostering our interoperability with allies and partners; improving the effectiveness of future multinational operations and operations with non-state actors; and enhancing our integrated deterrence posture that is critical to our strategic effectiveness. The advantages of the approach outlined in the CHMR-AP are manifold. As the introduction to the CHMR-AP notes, these efforts will improve DoD’s approach to “mitigating and responding to civilian harm, protecting U.S. national security, and confronting the complex challenges of the modern security environment.”


Dan E. Stigall is detailed from the Department of Justice (National Security Division) to the Department of Defense, where he is a Special Advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. From January – August 2022, he served as Team Lead for the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan Tiger Team and led the development of the action plan.

Anna Williams is detailed from CNA to the Department of Defense, where she is the Senior Advisor on Civilian Protection in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. From January – August 2022, she served as the senior advisor and principal subject matter expert for the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan Tiger Team. 



Photo credit: Army Spc. Hedil Hernández, Army National Guard