NBC Weapons: War In The Age Of Zero Tolerance




October 12, 2016: In mid-September the U.S. revealed that it had destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Iraq that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had captured and converted to produce chemical weapons. Actually this turned out to be misleading. The factory did not produce chemical weapons but rather some of the components of chemical weapons (apparently Mustard Gas) that were put together elsewhere. The U.S. is less likely to bomb a plant that actually produces chemical weapons or any place where they are stored.

ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups are aware that the American ROE (Rules Of Engagement) currently forbids bombing any place were chemical weapons (in any form) are stored or manufactured. These ROE restrictions began in the early 1990s and after the ROE was changed in 2009 such attacks were basically forbidden. You could still bomb sites containing non-lethal materials used to make chemical weapons, but even that required a complex and often time-consuming approval process.

Bombing chemical weapons storage sites was not a problem during the Cold War (1948-91) because it was assumed the chemical weapons would be stored in enemy territory (as in Russia) and would probably be destroyed using nuclear weapons. The problem always existed that aerial bombing would never completely destroy the chemical weapons and some of the stuff would spread to surrounding areas and still be dangerous for days or weeks. In that time any people in the area could be injured or killed. As soon as the Cold War ended the chemical weapons destruction ROE became an issue. This was triggered because during the 1991 Gulf War there were Iraqi chemical weapons stored in sites near friendly civilians (Kuwaitis) and American troops. There were some American injuries. This led to over a decade of futile effort to come up with a solution to the problem.

Work began during the 1991 war when a special technique was improvised for destroying chemical weapons from the air. This involved hitting the target (often a munitions bunker) with high explosives first, then with incendiary bombs. While this burned up, and neutralized some of the chemical agents, in practice it wasn't perfect. So the U.S. Air Force created a new weapon, the HTI-J-1000. This penetrator bomb contained explosives, incendiary chemicals to burn up chemical or biological weapons, as well as chlorine and acids to neutralize the biological agents. There is also a guided cluster bomb containing 4,000 titanium rods for penetrating and destroying chemical or biological bunkers and destroying the contents. HTI-J-1000 and variations of it were found to be more effective, but not perfect. One of these was the BLU-119 Crash PAD (Prompt Agent Defeat), is still in stock but it does not guarantee destruction to a great enough degree to comply with the current ROE. After 2009 anything less than guaranteed complete destruction was not acceptable. This was part of the “Zero Tolerance” approach that became so fashionable among politicians, the media and special interest groups after the Cold War ended.

Despite this American allies in Syria and Iraq are asking for the ROE to be relaxed otherwise groups like al Qaeda and ISIL will continue developing and producing chemical weapons secure in the knowledge that they are safe from American air attack because of the U.S. ROE. This in spite of the fact that ISIL has been using mustard gas against Kurds, Iraqi troops and, in at least two instances, American troops in Iraq. The issue is being reviewed and the government (unofficially) hopes the problem goes away before someone has to deal with it.

All this began in Afghanistan where the Taliban learned how to exploit the new (2009) ROE by using more civilians as human shields. The Taliban were surprised to find that the ROE applied even if it meant the American and Afghan troops were put in more danger. Sometimes this approach actually put civilians in more danger. For example, as the ROE got more restrictive American troops increasingly encountered angry Afghan civilians who demanded that the Americans act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman, even if it put Afghan civilians at risk. The civilians could do the math and knew if Taliban were not killed they would go on to kill more civilians. The same situations now applies in Syria and Iraq, especially when it comes to chemical weapons and the locals are not pleased with the American ROE at all.

All this began when the new 2009 U.S. ROE was applied in Afghanistan. The new ROE restrictions were partly in response to popular (or at least media) anger at civilians killed by American smart bombs. As a result of the new ROE, it became much more difficult to get permission to drop a smart bomb when there might be civilians nearby. After 2009 American commanders had to decide who they should respond to, Afghan civilians asking for relief from Taliban oppression or Taliban influenced media condemning the U.S. for any Afghan civilians killed, or thought to be killed, by American firepower. What to do?

Taliban propaganda, and the enthusiasm of the media for jumping on real, or imagined, civilian deaths caused by foreign troops, made people forget that far more civilians (about four times as many) had been killed by the Taliban. But because Afghans have been conditioned to expect more civilized behavior from the foreign troops, much less media attention is paid to the civilians killed by the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Of course Afghan civilians are aware of who is killing most of the civilians, and that's why the Taliban and al Qaeda get low numbers in local opinion polls. But the media, hammering foreign troops every time they kill a civilian or are simply (often falsely) accused of doing so, led to the ROE becoming far more strict than it ever was in Iraq. Thus, one Taliban victory you don't hear much about is how they turned their use of human shields into a powerful, and very successful, propaganda weapon against NATO and U.S. troops and an excellent way to avoid getting attacked. ISIL is now benefitting from this, even though ISIL kills more civilians than the Taliban.

Under the new ROE you had to, in effect, do a casualty analysis and consult a lawyer before a deliberate missile or smart bomb attack is made on the Taliban. To their credit, the U.S. Air Force targeting specialists (who do most of this) can carry out the analysis quickly (often within minutes). Even the lawyers have gotten quick at the decision making game. The bad news is that attacks are often called off just because there's some small risk of harming civilians or because the delay enabled the enemy to get away.

The Taliban are aware of the ROE and take advantage of it. The Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups now try to live among civilians as much as possible. But these terrorists do have to move around, and the ability of NATO and U.S. ground forces, aircraft, and UAVs to keep eyes on a Islamic terrorist leader for weeks at a time has led to the deaths of many smug guys who thought they had beat the system.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close