U.S. Strike Cells: Dispelling the Myths
Last August, in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world witnessed a disastrous incident in Kabul when ten Afghan civilians, including up to seven children, were killed by a U.S. drone strike meant for ISIS. It was a truly tragic event, without question the result of a string of targeting mistakes.
In the weeks following, a slew of media reports painted a grim picture of “over the horizon” targeting operations carried out from what have come to be known as strike cells. These reports weaved a narrative of rogue lawlessness in our nation’s most elite forces, accused mass atrocities against civilians, and alleged conspiracy at the highest levels to cover the evidence.
Meanwhile, a war now rages in Ukraine that has shocked the world. The manner in which Russia has carried out its offensive already plays as a microcosm of the atrocities of the Second World War. In Ukraine, the Russian military continues its indiscriminate strikes on civilian areas that began in the first days of the offensive and have only increased in scope as fighting has intensified. Widespread war crimes, directed by senior Russian commanders, have been verified and condemned by U.S. officials.
Simultaneously, Russia’s brazen attacks on civilians and infrastructure continue in Syria where, since 2015, it has intentionally targeted hospitals, schools, markets, and even civilian encampments in a mission to support the brutal Assad regime.
In this context, it is vital that the American public and the world understand just how differently the United States military conducts warfare from such malign actors as Putin’s Russia.
Last December, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the New York Times ran an article entitled “Civilian Deaths Mounted as Secret Unit Pounded ISIS.” The article describes a highly secretive strike cell operating during the U.S. campaign in Syria and run by a small task force of U.S. special operators. The Times depicts U.S. special operators in a narrative fit for a movie trailer. It paints an inhuman picture that an otherwise uninformed reader would find appalling, and rightly so.
They used first names and no rank or uniforms, and many had bushy beards and went to work in shorts and footwear that included Crocs and Birkenstocks. But from their strike room, they controlled a fleet of Predator and Reaper drones that bristled with precision Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs …. The shadowy force sidestepped safeguards and repeatedly killed civilians … embraced a loose interpretation of the military’s rules of engagement, [demonstrated a] pattern of reckless strikes…. [killing] people who had no role in the conflict: farmers trying to harvest, children in the street, families fleeing fighting, and villagers sheltering in buildings.
Indeed—a colorful and damning narrative. But one that belies the truth.
Much of the misunderstanding regarding strike cell operations—or “over the horizon” strikes as they have come to be known—stems from mystification of what a strike cell actually is. A strike cell exists for a singular purpose: to support ground forces with airpower to find, fix, and finish valuable enemy targets. But rather than being some windowless building in an undisclosed location where indiscriminate strikes are directed by mindless soldiers or rogue commandos, the strike cell is in reality a highly sophisticated operations center that fuses every capability in a joint force with every movement and piece of intelligence on the battlefield. Its operators are highly skilled “puppet-masters” of the battlespace, who manage and direct incredible amounts of information and assets, from airborne sensors, to communications, to intelligence, to strike aircraft, artillery, and ground combat forces.
Every member of the strike cell—from the operators running the strike cell, to the pilots releasing ordnance from above onto enemy targets, to the soldiers on the battlefield passing targeting information while engaged with the enemy—is guided and bound by the legal and ethical frameworks of the U.S. Law of War Program and the rules of engagement established in a given combat theatre. Whether controlled from within a cell, or forward on the battlefield and pinned down under enemy fire, every strike must meet the same criteria for approval. A targeting team must positively identify an enemy target, confirm that the target falls within the given rules of engagement and is therefore lawful to strike, identify any risk to civilians and infrastructure and mitigate that risk appropriately and, finally, adhere to the principles and associated rules of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity. Part of the guiding doctrine in every strike is the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Collateral Damage Estimation Methodology. Considered a “bible” of strike cell operations, the methodology provides clear directive in regard to the safeguarding of civilians:
It is an inherent responsibility of all…targeting personnel to…establish positive identification…identify potential collateral concerns…[and] apply the [collateral damage methodology] with due diligence.
It is a demon of eras long past that the targeting of protected civilians was considered an acceptable and unavoidable cost of victory in professional, law-abiding militaries. Today, this kind of warfare is unthinkable, not only because we have the means by which to wage warfare more precisely but, more importantly, history and current events show us the tragedy wrought from the other path. Even so—myths persist, and unfortunate journalism perpetuates them.
Myth: Lack of Oversight
In reference to the Syria strike cell, the Times states:
The majority of strikes were ordered not by top leaders but by relatively low-ranking U.S. Army Delta Force commandos … usually a sergeant first class or master sergeant, [who] were trained as elite commandos but had little experience running a strike cell.
Aside from the aspersions this comment casts on the professionalism and expertise of U.S. special operators, the statement is oblivious to the military chain of command and modern military culture. Today’s U.S. armed forces are largely enlisted-centric—a phenomenon compounded in special operations—where the majority are enlisted men and women who have dedicated their lives to their profession. Indeed, the robust and highly effective U.S. non-commissioned officer corps has emerged as a distinguishing feature from the hollow and ineffective Russian forces that are now stalled in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are invested in a single U.S. special operator’s enlisted training—often not over months, but years. Add to that training decades of tacit experience in warfare and the seasoned special operator is a PhD-equivalent in their field.
He or she is, accordingly, afforded an incredible degree of responsibility and respect. As a young sergeant attached to infantry units and Special Forces teams across Iraq and Afghanistan, I was the sole member charged with integrating and controlling combat airpower. As a master sergeant, I advised general officers in high-value targeting operations and directed strikes at their command.
America’s enlisted force is not some mindless legion of foot soldiers ready to do the bidding of a tyrant. It is a professional corps of intelligent leaders and experts to whom junior and senior officers alike defer to make tough decisions. This does not mean that enlisted are the final approval authority in any strike operations—they are not, and never have been. The truth is that every U.S. strike cell has operated under the authority and oversight of a senior commander. And not a strike takes place in which a designated senior officer does not provide final approval or, at the very least, delegate authority to a subordinate commander.
Yet, the Times article implies that this delegation of authority to subordinate commanders caused increases civilian casualties. “In an attempt to keep pace with a rapidly expanding offensive, [senior commanders] moved the authority to approve strikes down to the level of on-scene commanders.” But this delegation of authority is common in modern warfare and not unique to strike cell operations. Delegation has one purpose: to enable timely and effective support to ground forces when lives are at stake and every second counts.
The article offers no evidence to support its claim that delegation led to massive increases in civilian casualties. Conversely, the 2018 Civilian Casualty Review executive summary—which the Times cites in another context to assess civilian casualties resulting from U.S. airstrikes from 2015 to 2017—found that “delegation of target engagement authority did not directly cause any increase in civilian casualties.”
Myth: Bypassing the Rules of Engagement
The Times states that the strike cell, “in the rush to destroy enemies, circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants.” It refers specifically to the Law of Armed Conflict.
The law of armed conflict … allows troops in life-threatening situations to sidestep the strike team lawyers, analysts and other bureaucracy and call in strikes directly from aircraft under what military regulations call an “inherent right of self-defense”… [which] allowed U.S. troops and local allies to invoke it when facing not just direct enemy fire, but anyone displaying “hostile intent.”
But it is the U.S. Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE)—not the Law of Armed Conflict—that address the inherent right of self-defense most proximately in these operations. And the SROE is not new. Grounded in LOAC, the SROE tell us that commanders retain the inherent right to “exercise unit self-defense in response to a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent.” Hostile act being an attack or use of force, and hostile intent being an imminent threat of attack. These rules even define a subset of self-defense termed collective self-defense, which enables U.S. forces to protect “designated non-U.S. citizens, forces, property, and interests.” In short, our partners and allies. They even allow combatant commanders to designate declared hostile forces in a given combat theatre, where any entity so-designated becomes legally targetable “without observing a hostile act or demonstration of hostile intent.”
Self-defense is invoked for the sole purpose of supporting ground forces during the most critical times during active ground combat operations. In lieu of self-defense, ROE for a strike would fall under such designations as deliberate, offensive, or strategic. These often demand lengthy approval processes that could take hours, days, even weeks in the case of high-profile targeting operations. While appropriate to their respective contexts, deliberate engagement procedures are not designed for forces actively engaged against a well-armed and highly-capable enemy force.
Myth: Broadly Interpreting the Rules of Engagement
The article alleges that the strike cell “began claiming that nearly every strike was in self-defense, which enabled them to move quickly with little second-guessing or oversight, even if their targets were miles from any fighting.” It concludes that because the task force “typically played only an advisory role in Syria, and its soldiers were usually well behind the front lines,” they weren’t justified in utilizing self-defense.
Yet, in the fight against ISIS across Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, not only was it commonplace that U.S. special operators were near or on the front lines, but—from a rules of engagement standpoint—it just didn’t matter. Imagine an enemy formation of gun trucks, ready to attack friendly forces and actively closing in on them even if still miles out. Or envision a large enemy artillery piece within firing range of friendly forces even if still miles away. Or imagine an identified enemy commander known to be responsible for previous attacks on friendly forces and actively coordinating more.
These are the kinds of targets that implicate self-defense even when friendly forces are not directly engaged with an enemy force. There is no specific distance from a given front line where a hostile force is suddenly too far away to be legally targeted. Moreover, it’s important to consider that, in modern warfare, there is often no defined “front line” in the first place. Such perspective takes a one-dimensional view of what is, in reality, an extremely complex and multi-dimensional battlefield.
The article also alleges that “something as mundane as a car driving miles from friendly forces could in some cases be targeted. The task force interpreted the rules broadly.” But to put it lightly, this a misleading assertion. A vehicle—simply traveling down a road and with no other incriminating factors—would not meet the criteria for a strike by any stretch of the imagination. However, if one were to inject, within this hypothetical example, vetted intelligence on the occupants of the vehicle; communications intercepts correlating to the vehicle; or real-time reconnaissance—any or all of which designated the vehicle and its occupants as lawful targets with hostile intent—the situation is not “mundane” at all.
Strikes conducted under self-defense are not a broad interpretation of the rules—they are the rules, and they are there for a reason. Without them, enemy forces survive and live to fight, U.S. casualties result, and partner force losses mount, often more so.
Myth: Conspiracies to Hide Incidents of Civilian Casualties
The article concludes that, because of the shroud of secrecy and classified nature of strike cell operations, the American public will simply never know the full scale of civilian casualties from our airstrike campaigns. More concerning, it contends that this is an intentional Pentagon campaign to keep its errors hushed. But this is a “strawman” argument which equates the necessary safeguarding of sensitive operations to some masterfully-designed conspiracy to smokescreen civilian casualties.
Civil-sector accusations of civilian casualties from airstrikes often exceed the numbers reported by the Pentagon. This disparity tends to sustain an idea that the Pentagon deliberately hides the incidental effects its operations have on civilian populations. But this disconnect exists in large part because, unlike formal Pentagon reports, none from media or non-governmental organizations have to be vetted by any legitimate sources. Accordingly, they are often based on social media reports, anonymous tips, even “guess-timated” using imagery analysis or extrapolated from population trends. Consider also that disinformation concerning civilian harm is deliberately planted by our enemies and the true picture of civilian harm becomes even cloudier.
The regions where we are engaged in combat operations are incredibly complex environments, often with unstable economic, political, and social conditions—literal havens for disinformation. Combine this with such chaotic environments as Syria, in the midst of civil war, where both Russia and the Syrian regime hammer the country with strikes with neither the precision capability nor the care for civilians and noncombatants that we have and it is often difficult, if not impossible, for those caught in the crossfire to distinguish strikes carried out by any of the states, armed groups or factions involved. Confusion, the fog of war, and enemy disinformation are, in my experience, far more compelling explanations for disparities in civilian harm reporting than imagined Pentagon conspiracies.
Separating Fact and Fiction
War, in any capacity and all its forms, is neither humane nor clean. And the harsh reality is that civilian casualties occur no matter how many safeguards are in place. This is sadly and particularly so in combat against forces that deliberately position themselves among or mimic the appearance of civilians. Civilian casualties can occur whether by faulty or negligent targeting, as what arguably led to the strike in Kabul last fall. This is so whether a result of the fog of war, as in the disastrous strikes in 2015 against the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, even with U.S. troops forward or whether the outcome of a string of unavoidable and unforeseen mistakes. The real question is to what degree our airstrike campaigns have harmed civilian populations—and whether the U.S. military and our special operations forces have, on a broad scale, intentionally and knowingly, killed civilians then conspired to cover the tracks. To the latter, I maintain a definitive “no.”
One of the vital things we can do as Americans is analyze, even scrutinize, our actions on the world stage free from the all-too-familiar lens of blind patriotism. The United States, as the leader of the free world, espousing the ideals of freedom, democracy, and personal liberty that we strive as a nation to embody, must also acknowledge where and when we go wrong. However, we must be honest and truthful in our assessments. It is at once misleading and damaging to take a few tragic incidences occurring over years of sustained warfare, along with a handful of unvetted anecdotes and accusations, and conclude from these a systemic wave of war criminality secretly echoing throughout the most senior and elite levels of the U.S. military. The only outcome is a dangerous misinforming of the American public and an unwarranted vilification of our military and its special operations forces.
There is a reason the United States is still the nation to which so many turn when evil comes. Look no further than Ukraine for that reminder. America’s military, and its special operators, are unparalleled professionals who safeguard our nation, our allies, and so many oppressed peoples throughout the most dangerous corners of the globe. We must have more faith in who they are, and we must keep trust in the selfless patriots to whom we hand this solemn charge.
Wes J. Bryant is a retired master sergeant and special operations joint terminal attack controller in the U.S. Air Force. He is coauthor of the book Hunting the Caliphate: America’s War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell, written alongside the former ground commander of Iraq Major General Dana J.H. Pittard.
Photo credit: T. Anthony Bell