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Austin Directs DOD to Develop Action Plan on Civilian Harm Mitigation

Jan. 27, 2022 | BY Jim Garamone , DOD News

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has issued a memo directing DOD to build an action plan on civilian harm mitigation and response, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said today.

"This action plan outlines the steps that the department will take and the resources that will be required to implement appropriate recommendations from recently completed studies of civilian harm — studies that were sponsored by DOD," Kirby said during a press conference.

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For years, the United States military has stressed avoiding civilian casualties whenever possible. "The protection of civilians remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations," Kirby said. "As the secretary has noted on more than one occasion, it is a strategic and a moral imperative."

The action plan grew, in part, out of a RAND Corporation study. "While the DOD has committed to an array of civilian-harm policies and processes, weaknesses and inconsistencies remain, according to the report. The study said the department is not adequately organized or resourced to sufficiently assess, reduce and respond to civilian-harm incidents. "Assessing and investigating the full extent of civilian harm in the aftermath of military operations is crucial to help the U.S. military fulfill its civilian protection responsibilities," RAND senior researcher Michael McNerney said in a written release. "Improvements will require DOD to address civilian-harm issues with institutional, not just operational, changes."

DOD officials agree. "This is really about implementation, not about additional study," said a senior defense official on background. "This is really meant to be structural. It's really meant to be looking across the full spectrum of how the Department of Defense conducts operations, in some cases, lethal operations, to focus on civilian harm. We view this as very much a strategic, operational and moral imperative." 

The department has a deadline of 90 days.

A reporter raises her hand to be recognized at a Pentagon news conference.
Press Briefing
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby holds a press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Jan. 27, 2022.
Photo By: Marine Corps Sgt. Taryn Sammet, DOD
VIRIN: 220127-D-ZY556-0035

Austin has directed DOD to establish a civilian protection center of excellence.  "Part of what the 90-day review will do is determine how that properly and most effectively fits into a structural framework for the department," the official said. The center will look at the issue holistically spanning "not only the policy and strategic side of things, but very much the operational piece of things," the official said.

The secretary also directed standardized operational reporting and data management. The combatant commands have different processes and even different schedules, the official said. Standardizing the process will mean getting the proper feedback to the operators, intelligence analysts and those looking at consequence management. 

Another component looks at implementing civilian harm mitigation measures. These could be condolence payments or public acknowledgment of harm. 

The last piece of the secretary's directive may be the hardest to implement, which is "really looking at how — across the full spectrum of armed conflict — we are building in the protection for civilians," the official said. 

This must be examined from operational and intelligence perspectives, and must be done in a way that gives commanders more tools, the official said.