Collateral Damage
Nov 15, 2014

The expression “collateral damage” became part of the military lexicon during the Vietnam War, having first appeared in May 1961, in Operations Research, an internationally-respected academic journal that is still published bi-monthly out of Maryland. The author, economist Thomas Crombie Schelling, was writing about the possible dispersal of U.S. Air Force bombers to civilian airfields where they might be less obvious targets. One potential result, he surmised, would be to put at risk the local populations or infrastructure that otherwise would not be attacked by Cold War enemies.

Nov. 2014 – Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighter jets taxi on the runway in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT. (Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND)

While it has become almost generic, the expression encapsulates an increasing concern for western militaries, particularly air forces, which often strike from a distance and which have, in the past, been criticized for being off-target when using less-sophisticated weapons of previous times. Contrast current concerns with the outcomes of World War II, notably the Luftwaffe’s blitzkreig of Coventry in 1940 and, in early 1945, the bombing raids by the allies against Dresden. Civilian deaths in Coventry were estimated to be in the high hundreds while the toll in Dresden has been estimated at up to 25,000.

Before and since WWII, the concept and principles of the “laws of war” have continued to evolve. There is now a consensus, mostly within western forces, about more clearly defined rules of engagement in an armed conflict. A central tenet is that people and property that do not contribute to the war effort should be protected – including civilian populations within which enemy forces embed themselves, presenting a tactical nightmare for their more principled opponents.

Nowadays, the Royal Canadian Air Force and its allies within the Middle East Stabilization Force (MESF) are sensitive to the political blowback from collateral damage as they fight the so-called Islamic State jihadists. Referred to as ISIL or ISIS, and blatantly brutal, these violent fighters have been plundering and terrorizing northern Iraq as well as threatening Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, and Middle East stability in general. Moreover, its followers have shown absolutely no regard for civilian populations, although they have been falsely telling each other that Canada is carpet bombing the area.

Nov 2014 – CAF members work in one of the newly constructed Joint Task Force tents at the Canadian camp in Kuwait during ­Op IMPACT. (Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND)

Canada’s MESF contribution, Operation Impact, is an initial six-month deployment of some 600 personnel in support of six Boeing CF-188 Hornets from 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cold Lake, Alberta. They and other coalition fighters are being refueled by an Airbus CC-150 Polaris tanker from 435 Transport Squadron in Trenton, Ontario, while two Lockheed Martin CP-140 Aurora intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

Three days after deploying to a desert airbase in Kuwait, where kilometres of concertina wire surround rows of tents and equipment, two Hornet pilots dropped their first ordnance at the beginning of November. Supported during a four-hour sortie by the Polaris, the fighter pilots were using targeting data supplied by an Aurora crew. Those first munitions, 500-pound GBU-12 laser-guided Paveway II bombs, were used with precision against ISIL forces near Fallujah, 70 km west of Baghdad.

During recent a media briefing, Colonel Daniel Constable, Commander of Joint Task Force-Iraq, said that by the end of November, CF-18 pilots had flown 72 sorties (updated to 94 by December 3rd). They dropped both GPS- and laser-guided ordnance to destroy not only ISIL forces but also heavy construction equipment being used by the terrorists, and an artillery piece believed to be one of more than 50 US-manufactured 155millimetre M198 howitzers that had been captured from the Iraqi army. They also flew “top cover” for Royal Australian Air Force humanitarian aid drops at the end of November.

Nov 2014 (Kuwait) – Members of the Canadian Armed Forces reinforce concertina wire around the Canadian camp during Operation IMPACT. (Photo: Operation IMPACT, DND)

Also by 3 December, the Polaris crews had flown 26 sorties, supplying nearly 1.3 million pounds of fuel to coalition aircraft, and the Aurora crews had flown 29 ISR missions. After the first two strikes by Hornet pilots, Constable (a former Hornet pilot who also flew F-3 Tornados while on exchange with the Royal Air Force) said  he was “very confident to report that we have no reports of any civilian casualties, no collateral damage.” And, while they had no indications about ISIL casualties, initial battle damage assessment by the Aurora crews indicated that there could have been enemy casualties on the second strike.

“Because of the dynamic nature of the targeting that we do, the follow-up that is done may or may not be able to produce that estimate,” he added. “We’re not really doing a casualty count at all. It’s more about the effects that we have achieved.” Since there were only ISIL troops in the area at the time of the second strike, “the casualties, if there were any, were ISIL forces.” He maintained that position during subsequent briefings.

Based on data provided through the “Incredible” Aurora ISR capabilities and coordinated within the coalition, Constable said the accuracy of the strikes “highlights our rigorous and discriminating target processes.” Col Constable explained how the RCAF aircrews and analysts are “very deliberate […] about making sure that we have all the information that we need to be confident that we’re reducing or eliminating any collateral damage possibility.”

He said that working “in accordance with the law of armed conflict and international law” meant that it took time to build the overall picture of the theatre. “We want to be very precise and make sure that when we do have a strike like we did on the 11th of November, that we’re affecting the ISIL forces only.”

Constable’s remarks echoed those of Gen Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, during a pre-deployment briefing at National Defence Headquarters with LGen Jon Vance and BGen Michael Rouleau, respectively the heads of Canadian Joint Operations Command and Canadian Special Forces Command.

Nov 2014 (Kuwait) Operation IMPACT. (Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND)

Asked how civilian casualties could be limited or mitigated, Lawson acknowledges the importance of the challenge. “Targets that were very much available at the start of the campaign will as a result of the effectiveness of the air strike campaign become more difficult to find. That raises the issue of how close you can come to the people we’re trying to protect in taking out ISIL targets. This targeting process is very complex and it is always taken into consideration.”

Vance called attention to “a lot of measures in place to prevent civilian casualties and indeed collateral damage to […] infrastructure.” And went on to elaborate that “our people are very well trained along the entire targeting process, from the pilots in the aircraft that are doing the work, flying the planes, to those who are operating the ISR platform, doing the target analysis […] engineering the attack so that it is done as precisely as possible.”

Vance also explained the “procedural and regulatory framework” underpinning the operation. The procedural element included the requirement to identify the target and have it analyzed. And the capacity of the Auroras’ recently-updated sensors effectively meant there would be “an unblinking eye” on target, limiting the possibility of missing movement of civilians in the area. There were coalition-wide theatre regulations about “the aspirational limits to civilian casualties” and a fundamental desire “to do the right thing.

Asked how much discretion Hornet pilots would have in prosecuting a strike, Lawson noted that the equipment available to today’s pilots was “much better” than when he flew CF-18s, including more accurate munitions. “But there is still this consideration when targeting, even if the target has been well assessed and seen to be very valid, for the pilot to assure that the conditions haven’t changed in theatre, so they are given discretion to bring their weapon back if they believe that unreasonable collateral damage may occur.”

August 2014 – CAF Maintainers from the Canadian Air Task Force Lithuania, await the pilots to disembark the CF-188s to greet them and prepare the aircraft for the coming mission at Šiauliai, Lithuania, during Operation REASSURANCE, in support of NATO Baltic Air Policing, Block 36. (Photo: Cpl Kenneth Galbraith, CFJIC/Combat Camera)

While Hornet pilots in “limited circumstances” can use their onboard targeting pods to assess a potential target, it is rare for pilots to act alone and even then usually with “deliberate” targets rather than ones in a rapidly-shifting environment in which the likelihood of a weapon being dropped or fired is reduced ­significantly.

When asked if the prospect of fewer readily-discernible targets being found as the operation matured might mean that more aircraft could return to base with their weapons still on their hard points, Vance replied that “we’d rather have idle aircraft than an inappropriate bombing.

Lawson made it clear that collateral damage of any kind wasn’t an option for his aircrews, even in such a “dynamic” and “evolving” theatre of operations. “This is a challenging mission against a barbaric adversary,” he says. “But this is a mission that we prepare for, that we train for, and that we’re ready for.”

Ken Pole is a Contributing Editor at FrontLine Defence magazine.
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