Smart Bombs, Dumb Policy?

October 14, 2014

With an increase in ISIS activity in Syria and Iraq, the United States has increased it’s presence in the region. Public outcry for U.S. air support following numerous atrocities carried out by ISIS has led to air strikes by U.S. military aircraft and drones. While some view this as a success against the continued war on terror, can we really justify the strikes while inflicting civilian casualties at the same time? The White House intended the standard of “near certainty” that civilians wouldn’t be killed to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council said. The justification being provided by the U.S. is that, “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”
However, with the rapid development and expenditure on advanced weapons, can we really justify lowering the legal standard that the U.S. has used for civilian casualties during airstrikes? With tomahawk missiles costing upwards of a million dollars each and having the capability to strike with accuracy within meters of the target, it just doesn’t make sense. The U.S. military budget is in the billions and a fair amount of that goes to military contractors to develop more accurate and more lethal warheads. So it is rather perplexing that we would choose to lower the standard of “near certainty” as mentioned by Caitlin Hayden of the National Security Council.
While the U.S. provides little details about the particular standards it is using for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq,

“one former Obama Administration official has said that it raises questions as to what legal authority these standards can be authorized under.

Examining history, we can see how lower standards of civilian casualties were acceptable during war in the past century. The technology during World War II resulted in millions in civilian casualties because our methods for bombing and delivery of warheads were not very advanced. However, we have come a long way since then and can now hit targets from hundreds of miles away without even putting our own service men and women at risk. The fact that we have these capabilities is a testament to the advances we have made in weapon development and this is exactly why the legal standard we appear to be loosening makes no sense.
The U.S. can justify its use of a softer legal standard to some degree. The lines between civilian and combatant have been blurred since the war on terror began and terrorist organizations have shown a propensity to use this to their advantage. Furthermore, the areas that are being targeted tend to have civilian populations in close proximity to combatants, leading to higher civilian casualties. In instances like this, it can be difficult to avoid civilian losses, even with advance weaponry. However, many targets appear to be training camps or villages and not major cities where targeting tends to be difficult. The advanced weaponry we spend so much on should be accurate enough to hit a very specific target in the middle of the desert and avoid killing dozens of civilians in the process. Because of the location of many of these targets, I find it hard to reconcile the lowering of the “near certainty” standard given the lack of knowledge under which legal standard this is being done. We spend significant taxpayer dollars on these “smart weapons”, so we can surely find a way to avoid lowering the civilian casualties standard.