Rules of Engagement for the 21st Century BattlefieldCommentary by Allen B. West
March 01, 2016
Rules of Engagement (ROE) is defined as a directive issued by a military authority specifying the circumstances and limitations under which forces will engage in combat with the enemy. In the history of warfare we have seen an incredible metamorphosis of the rules of engagement. Long ago, armies presented themselves upon the battlefield in open areas away from civilian populations. The fact that weapons were limited to that which was carried, sword and spear, meant that fighting the enemy meant close-quarter engagement. The rules then were quite simple: engage the enemy, defeat them, and pursue to bring about their ultimate destruction. Given the fact that the level of communications capability was basically that of your voice, formations were tight and not spread out.
As battlefield technology and communications technology improved, the military battlefield expanded, and that meant a broader scope of what a “battlefield” encompassed. So as time moved forward, the battlefield was not just far away fields where armies came together; it meant involving civilian populations. As armies grew in size and scope, it became more necessary to depend upon local populations for food resourcing.
One thing that remained necessary and important was the states declared war against each other and fielded uniformed militaries that were identifiable on the battlefield. But consider what began here in America with the French and Indian War when there were two adversaries, but each employed non-state entities in support of their uniformed forces. The history of our vaunted US Army Rangers came from a company-sized force from the provincial colony of New Hampshire called into service of the British Army led by Colonel Robert Rogers, Roger’s Rangers. This guerrilla force operated in support of a uniformed state military, the British Army, against its enemies and won fame in the campaign against the Abenanki Indian tribe – who had been waging a frontier war against civilian populations supporting the British.
In our own Revolutionary War, militias such as that of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” in South Carolina again featured a group supporting a uniformed Army in its prosecution of warfare.
In order to try and police the battlefield and reduce the impact of such non-uniformed belligerents, it was often a practice that those captured on the battlefield as such were summarily tried and executed. The purpose was to try and protect civilian populations.
But with the advent of “total war,” where civilian populations were in support of the war making machine, industry rules of engagement changed. Industry and means by which the materiel support to warfare were deemed part of “centers of gravity” were now targets. We remember the bombing of the Ploesti oilfields in Romania. Such as it was for factories that produced weapons components and the train systems that transported troops and materiel. And yes, there were spies and acts of espionage to gather intelligence and sabotage key infrastructure – and again, those captured not in uniform aiding and abetting efforts were summarily executed. It was brutal, but in essence it was the unfortunate consequence of civilians entering the expanded battlefield.
Fast forward to Vietnam, where a main belligerent on the battlefield was the Viet Cong, who infiltrated the civilian population and used adjoining nation-states as a base of operations to train, equip, provide provisions, and stage their attacks. They were a non-state actor in support of a state actor, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ROE during that war was very convoluted, and in many ways enabled the enemy to find sanctuary due to the desire not to inflict civilian casualties.
And so we find ourselves much in a similar position today in the war against Islamic Jihadism. War on terror is a horrible misnomer. One cannot fight against a tactic, which is what terrorism is. It is a means, a method used by an undefined enemy. On the new battlefield of the 21st century, we must have ROE that is not developed at the highest levels but at the battlefield levels to enable success. When the enemy knows that we have a political concern with “collateral damage,” they will use that reticence to their utmost advantage.
As a Battalion Commander in Iraq, I can recall the insurgent enemy using mosques and burial grounds as assembly points, as well as ammunition and equipment staging points. They knew what our restricted target list was. We insidiously advertised it. The enemy knows that our troops are told to not fire until fired upon, and it has come to the point where Islamic jihadist enemies can simply drop their weapons and walk away, knowing they will not to be engaged by our forces.
We must also employ weapon systems on the battlefield with the proper ROE that enable us to gain and maintain contact with the enemy, and not allow them to reposition into civilian populations, which increases the chances for civilian casualties. Let me provide you with an example from my years in Afghanistan.
When an American element becomes involved in a TIC (troops in contact), it is imperative that they have the support of all resources that can destroy that enemy in place. The ground element must be able to keep the enemy engaged and maintain “eyes on target.” If the enemy is firing upon you from a location, that location is a target. What happens all too often is that far back at some headquarters, any request for additional fire support must go through ROE protocols, where a series of inane questions are asked of the ground element – something the enemy knows very well. Time is of the essence in a firefight.
We need weapon systems platforms that are in support of the ground element; that can deliver close support to them. We need mortars, artillery, and aerial close-air support assets that allow the ground element to keep an enemy pinned down for the ultimate kill, with additional assets. And let me be very clear: an F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 are not exactly fixed wing close air support assets. The best tools for that mission are attack helicopters or A-10 Warthogs. Why? Because the ground element can direct them right in on the enemy while still maintaining their direct fire, and reducing the issue of collateral damage.
What happens on the modern battlefield is that the enemy knows our TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures). When our ground element disengages, meaning they stop firing, they are repositioning to not be in the circular error probable of bombs that will be dropped. So the enemy repositions as well, and normally deeper into civilian areas, and we raise the probability of collateral damage.
If we are to be successful on this battlefield, let’s allow the leaders on the ground - not lawyers - to develop common sense ROE. We can ill afford to allow the enemy any advantage and initiative to kill our men and women we have deployed into harm’s way. This is a critical issue that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees should be examining. This is why we at the National Center for Policy Analysis are addressing this policy issue. To learn more, visit our “Provide for the Common Defense, Now!” petition.