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Anticipating the Human Costs of Great Power Conflict

By Brittany Card


As bipartisan calls to “end endless war” intensify, the U.S. military has already turned to its next challenge: great power conflict. Over the last few years, U.S. defense policy has undergone a formal reorientation away from counterinsurgency and counterterrorism and toward great power competition with countries like China and Russia. The Obama administration’s 2015 National Military Strategy focused on deterring, denying, and defeating State adversaries, while the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies China and Russia as the main priorities for the Department of Defense (DOD) because of the “magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future.” This pivot has already resulted in concrete changes to DOD planning, training, budget requests, and overall strategic philosophy, with even more significant changes anticipated as each branch of the military continues to refine their warfighting concepts with an eye towards great power conflict. The 2017 update to Army Field Manual 3-0 (FM 3-0), for example, focuses almost entirely on deterring and defeating a major adversary, predicting a war “more chaotic, intense, and highly destructive than those the Army has experienced in the past several decades.”

Conspicuously absent from policy and planning documents, however, is a clear-eyed assessment of the likely human costs of such a conflict or considerations for how to minimize civilian harm should the worst come to pass. At the political level, an understandable focus on deterrence might blind policymakers to the very real costs of escalation as the rhetoric of “great power competition” intensifies. At the strategic level, perhaps military planners do not see an obvious strategic rationale for the protection of civilians the way they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or, conversely, maybe they assume that civilian harm mitigation practices are firmly embedded in the military’s ethical and legal DNA or its institutional memory after decades of hard-won lessons on the importance of winning hearts and minds. But although the strategic rationale for limiting harm to civilians may shift with the focus on great power competition, omitting the presence of civilians in planning assumptions or training, or failing in other ways to adequately examine assumptions about civilian behavior in future conflicts, misrepresents the costs of conflict, unnecessarily endangers the lives of countless civilians, degrades U.S. moral leadership abroad, and does a disservice to the military service members who would do the preponderance of the fighting.

In the face of these challenges, earlier this year, our organizations — Center for Civilians in Conflict, the U.S. Naval War College Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program, and Stanford Health Policy — embarked on an interdisciplinary project focused on understanding and identifying the wide range of potential risks posed to civilians and humanitarian responders in great power conflict scenarios. The project has two interrelated objectives: First, we seek to grasp the potential human costs of great power conflict and communicate those costs to policymakers so that national security decisions are made with clear eyes, realistic expectations, and a deep appreciation for the consequences of conflict. Second, we aim to identify concrete opportunities to proactively mitigate risks to civilians across a range of potential conflict scenarios through thoughtful planning and coordination among key stakeholders. The project consults with respected humanitarian and human rights practitioners, policymakers, military planners, academic experts, and technologists to examine possible great power conflict scenarios, evaluate current military planning assumptions, and anticipate potential risks to civilians.

Assessing Civilian Risks Across Great Power Conflict Scenarios

Our initial research has found that predicting the risks to civilians in great power conflict is challenging, in part, due to the wide range of possible scenarios that might come to pass. Among the more likely options are so-called “grey zone” and “hybrid” conflicts, in which States seek to avoid open warfare by blending an increasingly diverse range of conventional and non-conventional means. Contemporary examples of this type of warfare include Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria, the Balkans, and even the subversion of Western elections; Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria; and competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen and beyond. Perceptions of “grey zone” warfare as a lower cost alternative to direct military confrontation may make conflict both more likely and more protracted while also obscuring attribution for conduct and introducing unique civilian harm risks and accountability challenges. Technological developments and the incentive to avoid or minimize direct conventional combat also mean that these conflicts are likely to be “multi-domain,” contested across air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace, including the information environment. The result may be that the theater of operations is everywhere, posing challenges to the effective application of international humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian response activities.

On the less probable but far more devastating end of the spectrum are large-scale combat operations (LSCOs) of the kind described in FM 3-0. LSCOs use speed and overwhelming force to break the opponents’ will to resist; defeat, and destroy enemy forces; and seize terrain, resources, and population centers. The intensity, lethality, and chaos of LSCOs generate exponentially more civilian harm risks and challenges. For example, conditioning forces to accept increased risk, rapidly maneuver, and win the first engagement may mean that measures to protect civilians are viewed as unacceptable limitations or constraints, while current civilian harm mitigation practices — such as regular civilian harm tracking and investigations — may be considered infeasible as a result of the operational tempo and sheer volume of casualties. The perceived existential nature of LSCOs may also increase the likelihood of the use of weapons of mass destruction, indiscriminately targeting civilians and civilian objects and resulting in significant direct and indirect effects, including long-term public health impacts on large populations.

Further compounding civilian protection challenges is the fact that, whatever the scenario, conflict will continue to wreak havoc on urban centers, heightening the risk of both direct civilian casualties as well as widespread reverberating effects on public health and essential services. DOD doctrine on urban warfare is arguably still in the nascent stages of development and not currently well designed for possible conflict in megacities or other large cities. Technological developments in cyber and artificial intelligence may also introduce new risks for civilians, from the disruption of essential services due to cyber attacks on critical infrastructure to oft-cited concerns around fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots.”

Finally, just as conflict becomes more deadly, humanitarian actors are likely to face new challenges that will hamper their ability to respond to human suffering. Earlier this year, we hosted our first research workshop with humanitarian and human rights experts aimed at identifying the range of humanitarian and civilian harm risks that might arise from various great power conflict scenarios. The participants shared concerns that humanitarian responders are likely to be instrumentalized or discredited by great powers and that conflicting norms and ideas — including those around IHL, human rights, and sovereignty — may be politicized as part of the conflict. As a result, humanitarians may be blocked from accessing conflict-affected populations, while Western NGOs may face pressures to support U.S. and allied interests, compromising their humanitarian principles and preventing them from helping vulnerable populations most in need of aid. Participants also observed that U.S. defense planning tends to overestimate the capacity of the humanitarian sector in responding to the effects of conflict, and that the military should be prepared for significant capacity gaps in a humanitarian response to large-scale combat. For example, humanitarian medical organizations simply do not have the capacity, expertise, or experience to respond to weapons of mass destruction, including large-scale biological or chemical weapons attacks.

As the project continues with additional workshops focused on military planning, the laws of war, and emerging technologies, we expect to discover and share additional insights about how civilians are likely to be affected by war, and how, in turn, the military and policymakers might endeavor to protect them. The conversations we have had to date serve as a stark reminder that war is always devastating, and civilians always bear the brunt of that devastation. It is our task to anticipate the many risks and challenges for civilian protection in the next great war and ensure that those challenges are recognized and addressed by military planners, educators, and warfighters. Above all, we must continue to inform policymakers of the human costs of a great power conflict, both for civilians caught in the midst of conflict and for the servicemembers who may make the most difficult and consequential choices on the battlefields of the future.