Future Conflicts, Civilian Harm, and the CHMR-AP – Part I

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| May 3, 2023

Information Environment CHMR-AP – Part I

As U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has stated, mitigating civilian harm is not only a legal and moral imperative, it is also a strategic imperative. To realize these imperatives, on August 25, 2022, Secretary Austin approved the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) which is designed to identify concrete steps the Department of Defense (DoD) will take to improve how it mitigates and responds to civilian harm caused by U.S. military operations. Since its approval, the Action Plan has been funded by Congress, and important work is now underway to create the institutional architecture, new capabilities, and supporting processes envisioned by the Action Plan.

The advent of the CHMR-AP has catalyzed a great deal of expert discussion that has elucidated the Action Plan’s ability to mitigate civilian harm, enhance compliance with the law of armed conflict, as well as a range of ancillary benefits that come with the optimization of the use of force and increased battlespace awareness. Data show that focused efforts to mitigate civilian harm like those set forth in the CHMR-AP improve tactical outcomes, for example, by improving the ability of forces to take action against the correct target and by minimizing friendly fire incidents.

While discussions of these dimensions of the CHMR-AP continue, it is also worth reflecting on how the CHMR-AP will enable the U.S. military to achieve better strategic outcomes across the spectrum of conflict. There is a universe of important strategic factors related to civilian harm mitigation and response that apply in every operational context. This two-part post, however, will focus on a specific set of strategic considerations that has grown increasingly salient with technological advances that have changed the character of the modern battlefield. Central to this discussion is the concept of legitimacy—a concept so important that it has been elevated as a principle of war in U.S. DoD doctrine. Similarly, another important element of this discussion is the new information environment in which warfare will be waged.

Future Wars and the Information Environment

It is difficult to know what the next conflict will be or to predict with confidence the characteristics of the next battlefield. Both scholars and Secretaries of Defense, informed by deep knowledge of the history of warfare, have warned of the particularly perilous nature of conflict prognostication. Even so, it is imperative that national security professionals—while addressing the threats and national security concerns of the moment—keep an eye on the horizon to prepare for future threats and challenges. Understanding the limits of our ability to anticipate the future, we can still look to recent experience, global trends, and a range of other factors (known technological advances, environmental factors, political and societal changes, etc.) to anticipate the nature of the next armed conflict and what will be required to achieve strategic success.

“Strategic success,” in this context, means the achievement of the political objectives sought using military force. As James M. Dubik has noted, in warfare, “[f]orce is employed for a purpose; it has an aim. This is war’s teleological dimension.” This means that victory in warfare is not achieved through the highest body count, but rather through the effective employment of force to achieve the political goals of the parties involved. This truth was famously highlighted by Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr. when recounting an exchange with a Vietnamese counterpart in which he noted that North Vietnamese forces had never defeated U.S. forces in any major battlefield engagement. In response, the Vietnamese officer nodded thoughtfully and said, “That is true. It is also irrelevant.”

Given the multidimensional nature of armed conflict, it has never been the case that the United States has gone to war guided only by the law of armed conflict. To the contrary, the effective use of force has always required careful consideration and additional calibration to achieve the political objectives for which military forces are sent to fight. This truth adds an uncomfortable element of complexity to war that is sometimes at odds with the golden-age fallacies of outside observers who sentimentally yearn for a fictional era in which war was unencumbered by such considerations. Real wars involve complex planning considerations that spawn myriad rules of engagement that shape the actions of military forces so their activity not only remains consistent with domestic and international law, but also supports a range of political and other strategic objectives.

Although the term “rules of engagement” was not adopted into DoD doctrine until 1958, such rules have been an established element of the American way of warfare since the founding of the United States. William Prescott’s famous order to American patriots at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775—“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”—was a constraint on the use of force beyond what the laws and customs of war required; a rule (of engagement) that calibrated military activity in order to preserve resources because ammunition supplies were limited.[i] It is, therefore, understood that the successful use of military force to achieve a strategic objective must always take into consideration a number of elements beyond what the law of armed conflict requires. And, as Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Operations states, “Failure to understand and comply with established [rules of engagement] can result in fratricide, mission failure, and/or national embarrassment.”

Warfare, therefore, is a complex endeavor—and it is only becoming more complex. This is in no small part due to technological advances over the past few decades that have revolutionized communication, transportation, and almost every aspect of modern existence. While new weapons and intelligence capabilities will obviously continue to shape armed conflict, so too will other developments such as the availability of the Internet and the rise of social media. Notably, advances in information technology have ushered in a new Information Age that has dramatically changed the environment in which military forces operate. It is now axiomatic that a fulsome understanding of this intensified, hyperconnected information environment and “the inherent informational aspects of military activities” is important for achieving enduring strategic success.

The technological trends that have shaped the contemporary battlefield show no signs of slowing and, in fact, have catalyzed a process of rapidly progressing interconnectedness. As commentors have emphasized,

The technological revolution of the last three decades has linked human experiences and interactions more closely than ever before. Around two-thirds of the world’s population—4.9 billion people—now have access to the Internet (a number that has risen significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, by around 800 million new users). An estimated 4.4 to 4.6 billion of those use social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

This progressively interconnected, information-saturated environment has changed battlefield dynamics and the character of modern warfare. On the modern battlefield,

nearly everyone and everything is connected in some manner, and the convergence of information technology with human values, attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions has created new challenges and new vulnerabilities for the United States. Individuals and organizations can leverage social media to catalyze protests in a fraction of the time it took only a few years ago.

This has catalyzed a profound shift in the character of war. As an analysis by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence highlights, “[t]he future of warfare is likely to focus less on firepower and more on the power of information[.]” Warfare in this new era—the post-Information Revolution Age—will differ markedly from its historical antecedents.

As an example, the omnipresence of the Internet and social media has been a notable element of the ongoing conflict resulting from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Today, in that State-on-State conflict,

[a]longside the information wars being fought by the governments, militaries and authorities involved, and the reporting from accredited journalists, there is now almost unlimited potential for ordinary people caught up in events to share their own experiences. First-hand testimony and images of atrocities such as those in Bucha or Mariupol can appear on our social media feeds in real time, popping up incongruously between viral memes and cat videos.

The “social media war” is being waged amidst the sounds of conventional conflict. (Media reports describe a pro-Ukraine Telegram channel called “Ukrainian Offensive” with 96,485 followers and the following slogan: “fighting on the civil-meme frontlines of the information war since 2014.”) This is a profoundly different environment than what commanders confronted on previous battlefields. Wars in the post-Information Age will see the use of social media and the Internet as a “vector for automated information attacks and influence tactics,” and as these technologies evolve, “[a]dditional automated methods supported by algorithms will increase the mass, frequency, and customization of messages.” On the modern battlefield, information and images will catalyze and shape the course of a conflict. They will also enhance or undermine military efforts in significant ways.

Additionally, the new information environment has given rise to more complex and sophisticated forms of Information Operations, defined as “the integrated employment during military operations of information-related capabilities (IRCs), in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” While non-state groups can conduct information operations due to the low cost of entry for such activity, near peer adversaries like Russia and China have particularly potent and sophisticated information operation capabilities. They aggressively use these capabilities to “achieve their objectives without fighting or to create favorable conditions if conflict occurs.” Information operations in this context exploit instances of civilian harm (or inadequate responses to civilian harm) for a number of purposes such as diminishing popular support for a military effort among the domestic population of a party to the conflict, degrading cohesion within a multinational coalition in order to weaken it, or even using civilian harm to foster a narrative of victimhood to justify otherwise illegal activity.

The question then turns to how the CHMR-AP advances U.S. strategic interests against the backdrop of this dramatic change in the information environment. Importantly, the CHMR-AP does not impose any constraints on military commanders but, rather, seeks to minimize civilian harm by optimizing the use of force, enhancing battlespace awareness, and providing commanders with additional information, tools, and resources. Further, the CHMR-AP is written in a way so that its actions can be implemented in different types of conflict. As the introduction to the CHMR-AP states, “The CHMR-AP is a flexible plan that advances the ability of DoD to mitigate civilian harm and achieve strategic success across the full spectrum of conflict. The CHMR-AP’s inherent scalability means the Action Plan is relevant to counterterrorism operations as well as high intensity conflict.” But how is civilian harm mitigation and response situated as a strategic priority within different operational milieus?

A second post will address this important question and sketch out how the CHMR-AP will support and complement future operations.

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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.

 

Photo credit: U.S. Army Sgt. Luke Michalski

[i] Rules of engagement (and their historical antecedents) have shaped the use of military force for the United States and other countries for centuries, including throughout both World War I and World War II.  Such rules, however, became significantly more important as the information age grew nearer.  J.F.R. Boddens Hosang, Deputy Director of Legal Affairs of the Netherlands Ministry of Defense and head of the international law section, notes that, after World War II, “the ability of the news media to present near real-time accounts of the conduct of military operations increased the need for political command authorities to ensure that the activities of the armed forces conformed to the political intentions as well as the need to maintain the support of public opinion.”