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Research Questions

  1. How does DoD assess reported incidents of civilian harm?
  2. When and how does DoD conduct more-thorough investigations, and how does this help DoD learn civilian harm–related lessons?
  3. What does DoD do to respond to reports of civilian harm that it has determined to be credible?
  4. How are the relevant components of DoD resourced and organized to assess, investigate, and learn from civilian harm?

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), from its most-senior leaders to military operators in the field, has expressed a strong commitment to complying with the law of war and to mitigating civilian harm for legal, moral, and strategic reasons and for reasons related to mission-effectiveness. But above and beyond its law of war obligations, DoD implements policies and procedures at multiple levels to mitigate civilian harm during armed conflict. In this report, researchers from the RAND Corporation and CNA conduct an independent assessment of DoD standards, processes, procedures, and policies relating to civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations. In particular, the researchers examine DoD's efforts to assess, investigate, and respond to civilian harm, as well as DoD's resourcing and structure to address such issues. The researchers outline their findings and recommendations for how DoD can improve in these areas.

Key Findings

Assessments reveal what happened

  • The military's data and records that support assessments of civilian harm can be incomplete.
  • Intelligence efforts focus on the enemy, limiting the resources available to understand the broader civilian picture.
  • The military's standard for finding a civilian casualty report to be credible is higher than advertised.
  • Combatant commands planning for high-intensity conflict against near-peer adversaries are unprepared to address civilian-harm issues.

More-extensive investigations can reveal why

  • Investigations are the most comprehensive tool for documenting and fully understanding civilian-harm incidents.
  • Neither investigations nor credibility assessment reports enable learning within the force.
  • Investigations can carry the stigma of a disciplinary process.

Responses to civilian-harm incidents can include the provision of ex gratia payments to the affected community and individuals

  • Such responses provide assistance to those affected by the tragedy of war, advance the U.S. mission on the ground, build rapport with local communities, and reinforce the U.S. relationship with the host-nation government.
  • DoD's responses to civilian harm have historically been inconsistent and confusing.
  • DoD's interim regulations are just part of what should be a more comprehensive response policy that addresses all civilian-harm response options.

DoD is not adequately organized, structured, or resourced to sufficiently mitigate and respond to civilian-harm issues

  • There are not enough personnel dedicated to civilian-harm issues full-time, and those who are responsible for civilian-harm matters often receive minimal training on the duties that they are expected to perform.
  • DoD is not organized to monitor and analyze civilian casualty trends and patterns over time.

Recommendations

  • Expand the kinds of information available for assessments to make them more robust.
  • Develop and deploy a tool or data environment to improve collection of, access to, and storage of operational data related to civilian harm.
  • Incorporate civilian harm into pre-operation intelligence estimates and post-operation assessments of the cumulative effect of targeting decisions.
  • Use a range of estimates of civilian casualties to improve the accuracy of assessments.
  • Establish guidance on the responsibilities of U.S. military forces in monitoring partners' conduct and offer assistance to partners in building their own assessment capabilities if needed.
  • Expand guidance on civilian-harm assessments across the full spectrum of armed conflict.
  • Implement a standardized civilian-harm operational reporting process intended to support learning.
  • In DoD guidance, avoid placing overly restrictive limits on why, where, and to whom the U.S. military distributes condolence payments.
  • In DoD's final policy on ex gratia payments, include additional transparency around how payment amounts are determined and how the payments are disbursed.
  • Provide guidance and training on all options available to commanders to respond to civilian harm.
  • Create dedicated, permanent positions for protection of civilians in each geographic combatant command and across DoD, and establish working groups of rotating personnel for additional support.
  • Create a center of excellence for civilian protection.
  • Maintain the capability to conduct periodic reviews to monitor civilian-harm trends over time and address emerging issues.
  • When civilian casualty cells are established at joint task forces, define processes for reverting responsibilities and data back to the command's headquarters.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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