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Non-Lethal Weapons and the Law of Armed Conflict: Minimizing Civilian Casualties on the Battlefield

By MAJ Mark E. Gardener | December 15, 2016

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There have been tens of thousands of civilian casualties in the post-September 11th, 2003 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these deaths have been a result of enemy action,2 but despite exercising reasonable precautions, and with a command focus on reducing civilian casualties,3 civilian deaths have occurred as a direct result of U.S. combat operations. In addition to the negative impact civilian casualties can have on military operations, particularly in a counterinsurgency, there are specific obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), and general ethical and moral obligations as practitioners of the profession of arms, to reduce civilian casualties to the fewest reasonably possible.

Non-lethal weapons4 (NLW) technology currently available to U.S. forces (or in development) provides promise in the effort to reduce civilian casualties but has been sparingly used during armed conflict. There have been attempts at introducing modern NLW technology to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but their application has so far been limited for reasons that are not clear.5 Unfortunately, the future armed conflicts that the U.S. may find itself engaged in will likely be conducted in environments more densely packed with civilians and civilian objects than ever before. The Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) recently researched the growing urban phenomenon of “megacities,” or those cities with a population of over ten million. The particular issues associated with these “megacities” make it likely the U.S. military will once again find itself dealing with the struggle to limit civilian casualties, while attempting to accomplish the strategic goals envisioned by our political leadership.

Crowded megacities, beset by poor living conditions, periodic rises in the price of commodities, water shortages, and unresponsive municipal services, will be fertile petri dishes for the spread of both democracy and radicalism, even as regimes will be increasingly empowered by missiles and modern, outwardly focused militaries.