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U.S. Military Works to Avoid Civilian Deaths, Collateral Damage

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2003 – The U.S. military will go to great lengths to limit civilian deaths and to minimize damage to nonmilitary facilities should war with Iraq be necessary, U.S. officials say.

"If force becomes necessary, it is clear that coalition forces would take great care to avoid civilian casualties," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a Pentagon press conference today.

A senior U.S. Central Command official had earlier briefed reporters in the Pentagon on the steps the military takes to avoid or minimize collateral damage. He explained collateral damage can take two forms: injuries or deaths among noncombatants and damage to property.

It's important to remember, he noted, that it's nearly impossible to eliminate collateral damage. Weapon systems malfunctions, human error and "the fog of war" all contribute. However, he noted, steps can be taken to minimize such damage and casualties.

First, the official said, potential targets are carefully considered to see if they're likely to result in noncombatant casualties, damage to nonmilitary structures or protected sites, or if the target is in close proximity to known human shields.

Human shields fall into two categories: people who volunteer to stay at military facilities as a means of protesting war and unwilling civilians a government forces to remain at a military site in the hopes that would prevent its destruction. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq used both foreign hostages and Iraqi civilians as human shields.

"It requires that we work very closely with the intelligence community to determine what that situation might be at a particular location," the official said.

Rumsfeld also spoke about the use of human shields during his later briefing. "Saddam Hussein ... has used civilians as human shields on the battlefield, exposing them to bullets and bombs in the hope that they would be killed and he could then blame that on others for propaganda reasons," Rumsfeld said.

"As President Bush said last week, 'The lives and freedom of the Iraqi people matter little to Saddam Hussein, but they matter greatly to us,'" he added.

If legitimate military targets are near anything America would like to avoid hitting, several steps might be taken to mitigate potential damage.

First, the planners could call for the use of a weapon with a smaller potential "maximum weapons effect area." For example, a 40-pound bomb might cause damage within a 60- or 70-foot radius, while the damage from a 2,000-pound bomb could extend out to 600 feet.

Perhaps a different type of fuse would be more appropriate in certain situations. For example, a weapon set to explode above a target might also damage surrounding buildings, the official explained, whereas a weapon would damage a smaller area if set to explode after it is on the ground or even underground.

A different aiming point or angle of attack could send debris in a direction away from the location planners are trying to protect. Or planners could order an attack at a time they expect a location to be least occupied.

The official cautioned that dual-use facilities, those with both a military and a civilian function, are legitimate targets, but that planners always look to see how best to minimize civilian casualties. In all cases, the mission's risks are weighed against its strategic value as a target.

In other cases, military planners seek to give civilians a chance to avoid potential targets. Radio broadcasts and leaflet drops have been used in both Afghanistan and Iraq to urge civilians to avoid military sites. Media and civilian organizations are often advised to vacate a certain site immediately.

The U.S. military has taken extraordinary steps to identify and document facilities the coalition intends to protect from military strikes. These include diplomatic facilities, public services, nongovernmental organizations' offices, medical and civilian educational facilities, religious institutions, and historically or culturally significant sites.

The CENTCOM official warned that such sites lose their protected status when governments deliberately locate military equipment and personnel within them.

Some experts have predicted a war with Iraq now would result in fewer civilian casualties than in the 1991 Gulf War. The CENTCOM briefer said this was possible because the U.S. military uses primarily precision-guided weapons today. This wasn't the case in 1991.

In Operation Desert Storm, 20 percent of the bombs used were precision-guided. The rest were gravity-fall "dumb bombs." In any war in Iraq today, 70 percent would be precision-guided, the official said.

CENTCOM Commander Army Gen. Tommy Franks, however, refused to speculate on the number of civilian casualties. He agreed there would be more precision in targeting this time around, but added that doesn't account for the actions of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"My personal view is that one should never put a stake in the ground and say there will be more or less casualties, either friendly or enemy," Franks said during the same briefing in which Rumsfeld made his comments. "Because, while we can reduce the variables, we also recognize that a very ruthless regime that sits in Baghdad will make his own decisions about where to position the lives of his own people."

Still, he added, U.S. planners would do what they could to avoid such casualties, " because we're part of a coalition that treats citizenry in Iraq as victims, not as enemies."

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Related Sites:
Background Briefing On Targeting
DoD News Briefing - Secretary Rumsfeld And Gen. Franks
Franks: Forces Ready for Military Action in Iraq


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