Large-Scale Combat Operations Symposium – Introduction
Editor’s note: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the ICRC, HLS PILAC, or other workshop participants.
Large-scale combat operations (LSCOs) involve widespread, devastating violence, usually on a vast scale. They create significant, competing demands on increasingly strained State resources while impacting civilian populations, humanitarian actors, and the environment. Modern LSCOs may take place across all operational domains, including space and cyber. They are also increasingly likely to involve a broad range of actors. International law applies to these complex operations, and, once the threshold for the commencement of an international or non-international armed conflict is reached, the law of armed conflict (LOAC) applies.
Preparing for the possibility of LSCOs raises complex questions of international law. In March 2023, the Lieber Institute for Law and Warfare at West Point co-convened a workshop to discuss some of these issues, alongside Harvard Law School’s Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (HLS PILAC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The intent was to provide a forum where individuals from the military, humanitarian, diplomatic and academic communities could discuss legal and policy issues related to LSCOs. An underlying premise was that identifying and evaluating a cross-section of issues would help to generate a deeper understanding of what is required for States – and other actors – to establish and maintain a systematic approach to upholding respect for the law in relation to LSCOs.
Panel discussions during the workshop addressed a range of issues. These included complex questions related to conflict classification, neutrality, belligerency, and the extensive humanitarian consequences notably involving the civilian population that can be anticipated in such a scenario. Workshop sessions addressed legal issues related to the provision of humanitarian services in LSCOs, as well as those that may attend the end of such a conflict. All the panels garnered wide-ranging debate and further underlined the stakes in upholding respect for international law.
As is clear from the conflict in Ukraine, LSCOs are likely to involve numerous States, as well as other actors, whose involvement might range from outright “war fighting” to providing some measure of assistance to one of the conflict parties. In advance of the workshop, Michael Schmitt provided his thoughts on “strict” versus “qualified” neutrality as a first and early contribution towards this Articles of War symposium.
Another panel addressed the responsibilities that international law imposes on military commanders and military legal advisers in the conduct of LSCOs, when operations are likely to be conducted in a rapid, intense environment, across multiple domains. This reality will challenge the ways in which States and their armed forces have become accustomed to operating during the counter-insurgency fights of recent decades. For instance, better detection systems combined with precision weapons are likely to lead to more dispersed forces and headquarters that must communicate less frequently with each other to survive. The intensity and high stakes of LSCOs are likely to necessitate more targeting decisions, made by fewer people, in less time, based on minimal information. The workshop featured military as well as humanitarian voices to assess these considerable challenges, including the implications for LOAC compliance.
The event additionally included a panel focusing on the deprivation of liberty in LSCOs. As the relevant legal issues vary considerably according to whether the conflict is international or non-international in character, the discussions encompassed some of the challenges that arise for military and humanitarian actors in both contexts. This broad focus will be replicated in the detention-related posts in the Articles of War symposium.
One of the most thought-provoking panels related to the protection of the environment in LSCOs. The natural environment enjoys some protections under international law and has received heightened attention in recent years due to climate change and ecological crises. During LSCOs, the environment is likely to suffer even greater destruction due to the scale of the conflict. These operations will have a significant impact on the environment, including with respect to oceanic, terrestrial, subterranean, and atmospheric effects. The symposium commences, therefore, with two posts focusing on environmental protection in the context of LSCOs, including in situations of occupation.
This workshop provided an excellent opportunity for a diverse group of academics and practitioners to discuss the challenges raised by LSCOs. We at the Lieber Institute are grateful to our event partners at HLS PILAC and the ICRC and look forward to conducting other events in support of our mission to foster a deeper understanding of the complex and evolving relationship between the law and warfare.
COL Winston Williams is Head of the Department of Law at the United States Military Academy and Co-Director of the Lieber Institute for Law and Land Warfare at West Point.
Jenny Maddocks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law at the United States Military Academy, West Point.
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