1. Even with the arsenal of precision weaponry and a complex process for mitigating civilian harm, the documents illustrate how civilian casualties became a regular, if not exactly routine, factor in American wars in recent years. We’d like your comment on the challenges of mitigating civilian harm, particularly with respect to the environments in which these wars took place. There is nothing “regular” or “routine” about incidents of civilian harm. We work diligently to avoid such harm. We investigate each credible instance. And we regret each loss of innocent life. The same cannot be said of our enemies. During the post 9-11 conflicts, the U.S. military has faced enemies that plan, resource and base themselves in and among local populace. They do not present themselves in large formations; do not fight coalition forces with conventional tactics, and use geography and terrain in ways not conducive in every way to easy targeting solutions. Moreover, they often and deliberately use civilians as human shields, and they do not subscribe to anything remotely like the law of armed conflict to which we subscribe. Indeed, the potential for incidental civilian harm to feed the ideological hatred espoused by our enemies in the post 9-11 conflicts and supercharge the recruiting of the next generation of violent extremists, made the object of minimizing the risk of civilian harm a strategic necessity as well as a legal and moral imperative. 2. At the same time, the documents identify patterns, such as a recurring failure to detect the presence of civilians during the targeting process. They also reveal a lack of accountability with respect to any findings of wrongdoing or disciplinary action, few full investigations, few lessons learned or recommendations, and little effort to study these findings in aggregate. What is intended to be a system of accountability, instead, appears to be a system of impunity. We’d like your comment. We would challenge the assertion in the question that there is a “system of impunity.” The U.S. military continues to strive to reduce the risk of civilian harm incident to combat operations in a manner that exceeds the standards imposed by law of armed conflict, both in terms of the strikes we have conducted and in the strikes we have chosen not to take. However, when strikes do cause civilian harm, the lawfulness of a military strike is judged upon the information reasonably available to the striking forces at the time of the decision to strike. U.S. Central Command applies a policy of reviewing and assessing all reports of civilian harm, irrespective of their source, and where the information available warrants, conducting formal investigations, applying critical lessons learned, and acknowledging
the civilian harm caused by our actions when an investigation determines the report is credible. Perfect situational awareness is seldom possible even with the best technology in the world. Mistakes do happen, whether based upon incomplete information or misinterpretation of the information available. And we try to learn from these mistakes. Ultimately, accountability is based upon the standards set forth in the law of armed conflict and in leadership compliance to the more restrictive procedures we institute to prevent unintended civilian harm. An honest mistake, on a strike taken with the best available information and in keeping with mission requirements that results in civilian casualties, is not, in and of itself, a cause for disciplinary actions as set forth in the law of armed conflict. I would also note that you have confided to us, that you have in your possession more than a thousand investigations into strikes that were alleged to have caused civilian harm, which is clear evidence that we have strove to understand and acknowledge the mistakes we have made. 3. In Iraq and Syria, the New York Times investigated the sites, according to coalition logs, of 60 civilian casualty incidents deemed “credible” during Operation Inherent Resolve (out of 340 total it has deemed credible in public releases). The documents and ground reporting reveal that the misidentification of a target is a factor in a significant number of civilian casualties, often as a result of confirmation bias. What concrete efforts have been made to prevent confirmation bias? Can you show evidence of improvement based on the implementation of those efforts? Confirmation bias is a real concern, as we saw in the airstrike conducted in Kabul on August 29th. We know we need to improve situational awareness, communication between strike cells and nodes, and introduce a more robust process by which the analysis of intelligence can be scrutinized in real time. There is more work to do on this. We acknowledge that. We also acknowledge that in many combat situations, where targeteers face credible threat streams and do not have the luxury of time, the fog of war can lead to decisions that tragically result in civilian harm and unintended consequences. We would add that U.S. Central Command and its components have pursued other efforts over the years to improve our effectiveness and accuracy. None is a panacea, of course, but each has helped make us more precise. Specifically: 1. The widespread use of precision guided munitions. Precision guided munitions have greatly reduced the uncertainty involved in airstrikes, and greatly reduced
4. Often, the misidentification of a target is only realized by the military after an external source investigates on the ground. What has prevented the U.S. military from investigating impact sites on the ground to better understand how and why civilian casualties occurred? Because of the nature of the post 9-11 conflicts, which have extended into non- permissive and semi-permissive environments, our investigating officers may lack direct access to the strike location and may not be able to interview personnel on the ground. These investigations do, however, often have access to classified intelligence that is unavailable to those on the ground. 5. Ground reporting revealed some stark contrasts between the determinations made in civilian casualty assessments and AR 15-6 documents, and the reality on the ground, most notably in the number of casualties. In credible assessments that were not based the risk of civilian harm resulting from munitions falling to the ground in unintended locations. 2. The widespread use of persistent overhead real-time video provided by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The ability to provide an extended stare at potential enemy personnel and positions has led to more accurate strikes, while the discovery of the presence of potential civilians by overhead UAVs has led to the postponement of untold numbers of strikes in order to prevent civilian harm. 3. The use of modeling for deliberate strikes. Sophisticated modeling of the effects of strikes allows air planners to tailor munitions, flight paths, locations, and timing to increase the likelihood that strikes hit what was intended and avoid unintended harm. 4. The development and use of small diameter bombs. U.S. Central Command has advocated for and increasingly employed small diameter bombs that are designed to reduce the risk of collateral damage. 5. The development of procedures to shift weapons off target to a safe location in the event that civilians appear near an intended target after weapon release. While not possible for every strike, it is now a common practice for U.S. forces to identify a potential location to which a munition can be safely redirected, if civilians appear near the target unexpectedly. 6. Advances in variable fusing. Many munitions can now be dynamically fused to produce the desired effect while minimizing collateral damage. 7. Enhanced networks. Advances in communications and real-time video sharing have increased the situational awareness of strike cell leaders to cross check what they are seeing with more team members on the ground and in the air to allow for a more accurate understanding of the presence of enemy combatants and civilians. 8. Process and procedural development. U.S. Central Command and its components continue to develop processes that account for and better utilize new technologies to reduce civilian harm.
on ground investigation by reporters or NGOs, the numbers of civilian casualties by the New York Times through ground reporting were nearly double that acknowledged by the coalition. We’d like your comment. In some strikes, the discrepancy between the assessment or investigation record and what was verified on the ground was extremely vast, such as the July 18, 2016 airstrike carried out by Talon Anvil in Tokhar, Syria. TF94-7 concluded up to 24 civilians had been killed, without visiting the site, while the New York Times documented more than four times that number on the ground. We’d like your comment. U.S. Central Command applies a policy of reviewing and assessing all reports of civilian harm, irrespective of their source, and where the information available warrants, conducting formal investigations, applying critical lessons learned, and acknowledging the civilian harm caused by our actions when an investigation determines the report is credible. Because of the nature of the post 9-11 conflicts, which have extended into non-permissive and semi-permissive environments, our investigating officers may lack direct access to the strike location or be able to interview personnel on the ground. These investigations do, however, often have access to classified intelligence that is unavailable to those on the ground. In any event, we acknowledge that in some cases our assessment of the numbers of civilian casualties does not always match that of outside groups, and we acknowledge that those numbers may change over time as well. We do the best we can, given the circumstances, to understand fully the effects of our operations and the harm done to innocent life. That we sometimes do not always arrive at the same conclusion of outside groups does not diminish the sincerity with which we strive to get it right. 6. The New York Times spoke to experts who have worked to mitigate civilian harm who have said that in essence, many of the efforts seemingly intended to help mitigate civilian harm — or to assess civilian harm after the fact through assessments and investigations— are not used to buy down risk to civilians, so much as they are used to provide justification for greater freedom of action on the battlefield, or to “protect soldiers from unsubstantiated allegations” of wrongdoing. What is your response to that? Please see answer to question #2.