Cover: The Continued Evolution of U.S. Law of Armed Conflict Implementation

The Continued Evolution of U.S. Law of Armed Conflict Implementation

Implications for the U.S. Military

Published Nov 9, 2015

by Bryan Frederick, David E. Johnson


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Research Questions

  1. What are the ongoing or anticipated strategic, technological, and normative trends that have the potential to shift U.S. policies implementing the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)?
  2. How might these trends change battlefield and legal or normative dynamics?
  3. What are the implications for the U.S. military of these possible changes?

U.S. policies implementing the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) have increasingly restricted military activities over the past two decades. Greater concern for civilian casualties in particular has motivated the U.S. military to take increasing precautions in its planning and deterred it from undertaking military actions anticipated to place civilians at risk. Despite the clear impact of such implementations on military operations in recent years, however, relatively little attention has been paid to assessing their potential future direction. This report aims to fill this gap by surveying potential strategic, technological, and normative trends that may affect the future evolution of U.S. LOAC implementation, and assessing the resulting implications for the U.S. military.

The report's assessment of these trends suggests that the U.S. military is likely to find it increasingly difficult to reconcile its operational responsibilities with political pressures to adopt highly restrictive implementations of the LOAC in the years to come, highlighting the need for policy options to mitigate both operational and political risks. The types of adversaries and operational environments that the United States is likely to face will tend to increase the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians and limiting collateral damage. At the same time, normative trends are likely to further increase the pressure on the United States to adopt restrictive rules of engagement and other implementations of the LOAC that emphasize the importance of avoiding civilian casualties, or place domestic public and foreign partner support for military operations at risk.

Key Findings

Strategic Trends May Make Limiting Civilian Casualties Increasingly Difficult

  • Urban warfare: Anticipated trends in population growth and urbanization mean that the United States is increasingly likely to face urban operational environments. It is difficult to conduct urban warfare while maintaining low levels of collateral damage, although doing so is widely seen as essential for maintaining political support for military operations.
  • Hybrid adversaries: The potential for hybrid adversaries to acquire and learn to effectively employ standoff fire capabilities may limit the United States' ability to conduct precision strikes that minimize civilian casualties.

Anticipated Technological Changes May Only Modestly Increase Usable U.S. Capabilities

  • Technological advances could give the U.S. military significant new capabilities in the years to come, but the extent to which some of these advances can be used in a manner consistent with the United States' implementation of the LOAC remains in question. This report examines technological trends in autonomous weapon systems, nonlethal weapons, cyber warfare, and space warfare.

Normative Trends May Strengthen Political Pressures to Avoid Collateral Damage

  • A number of normative or social trends may influence U.S. LOAC implementation, by affecting domestic public or foreign partner support of or adverse reaction to U.S. military activities. The analysis in this report focused on several trends, including domestic reactions to civilian casualties, the diffusion of recording technology, differing partner attitudes, and the deliberate exploitation of U.S. concern for the LOAC by its adversaries. Overall, these trends are likely to increase political pressures on the United States to minimize civilian casualties.


  • To limit the circumstances in which it faces unacceptable choices in the future, the United States should begin to develop policy options to mitigate operational and political risks. The following options are briefly discussed in the report: precision micromunitions, usable nonlethal weapons, greater diplomatic engagement, wearable cameras for U.S. forces, and enhanced political and legal focus on adversary LOAC violations.
  • Further research is needed on how the United States can most effectively combine the pursuit of its strategic interests with evolving political pressures and its enduring commitment to the LOAC.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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