Despite the comments by many pundits, last week’s failed raid on a compound in Somalia by Navy SEALs says nothing about the limits of U.S. military power and everything about the self-restraint with which we employ this potent instrument. According to published reports, when the SEALs met opposition in their attempt to enter the compound and seize a wanted terrorist the on-scene commander ordered them to retreat rather than press the assault or call in an airstrike. Apparently, the operation was being conducted under restrictive rules of engagement (ROEs) that called for “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed” if lethal force was employed. The presence of a number of women and children in the compound was the determining factor.
U.S. military operations are planned and executed in accordance with carefully crafted ROEs and ongoing legal oversight. Air operations officers will tell you the hoops they have to jump through when planning a strike in order to minimize collateral damage, and avoid the destruction of religious centers, hospitals, schools and national shrines. The demand for smaller, more precise weapons, particularly for air delivery is growing.
Coming two decades after the Black Hawk Down experience, the recent Somali raid is a harbinger of things to come. In 1993, 18 Americans and an unknown, but extremely large number of Somalis were killed in a running gun battle on the streets of Mogadishu. We now know that lethal force must be employed carefully not only for legal and moral reasons but in order to maintain the option of winning hearts and minds. The SEAL raid reflects a growing recognition that the real battlefield in the global war on terror is on what the U.S. Army calls the human terrain.
Clearly, the demand for more calibrated, even safer weapons is going to grow. To date, the military has invested only modestly in reduced lethality systems. The most significant development is the Small Diameter Bomb, a 250lb precision, air-delivered weapon designed to replace much larger, more destructive weapons. The Pentagon has a Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate, run by the Marine Corps, looking into ways to defeat hostile personnel, platforms and even facilities without the use of traditional kinetic means. The Navy is on the cusp of developing ship-based lasers that could put a spot of light on the E in the Evinrude logo, causing a hostile small boat’s engine to start to burn while harming no one.
Starting or sustaining new programs is always difficult during a budget downturn. However, investing in the Small Diameter Bomb, nonlethal weapons and ship-borne lasers makes sense. We are going to need these kinds of capabilities in the years and decades to come.
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