NATO releases new joint air power strategy, but no recognition of potential for civilian casualties

By Dr. Ian Davis, NATO Watch

NATO air forces must be able to defend against peer competitors and anticipate the growing role of cyber and space-based assets, according to a new NATO joint airpower strategy released on 26 June 2018. The document was approved by NATO Defence Ministers at their February 2018 meeting in Brussels. As the NATO news release says, “While air power has played a central role in NATO’s collective defence and crisis management for decades, the strategy is the first of its kind since NATO was founded in 1949”. The 11-page document complements the alliance’s 2011 maritime strategy.

“For almost 70 years, airpower has been a core part of NATO’s military capabilities. From deterring the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to operations in the Balkans in the 1990s and the fight against international terrorism in the deserts of Afghanistan, air power has helped to protect our people and achieve our political objectives”, said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu. She added: “As we take steps to increase the readiness of armed forces across the Alliance, the new strategy will help ensure that allied air forces remain world class, flexible and ready for any possible contingencies”.

The strategy spells out many aspects of NATO air operations—including doctrine, organisation, training, infrastructure and logistics, leadership, personnel, interoperability, command-and-control and strategic communications—outlining how each of these aspects connects with the alliance’s three core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security both now and in the future. In particular, air power is regarded by NATO as key to deterring Russia—the document doesn’t explicitly mention Russia, but points out that allies must contend with near peer adversaries for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union—projecting stability beyond the borders of NATO and for the struggle against terrorism. However, it also suggests that decades of uncontested air operations may be coming to a close as modern air defence systems, cyber and electronic warfare begin to impact on NATO air operations:

"For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance has to be able to conduct operations against any peer-state actor. As a result, the future operating environment may be one in which air superiority can neither be assured at the onset of operations nor, once obtained, be an enduring condition".

The document also makes the case for special forces, maritime and cyber units to better support of air power with intelligence, targeting support and post-strike assessments. However, NATO’s use of air power has a controversial history. During the bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, for example, which was undertaken without the authority of the UN Security Council, approximately 500 civilians were killed and bridges, industrial plants, public buildings, private businesses, as well as barracks and military installations were destroyed.

During the air war in Libya in 2011 NATO dismissed claims of any civilian casualties. In July 2011, then NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that the alliance had "no confirmed information" about possible civilian casualties as a result of its bombing. Libyan officials’ claims that the alliance's airstrikes killed more than 1,100 people were regularly discredited in the Western media as propaganda. However, NATO’s claim of a civilian casualty-free campaign was contradicted by a number of credible media reports of NATO attacks that killed or injured civilians.

In Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), from 2006 until it ceased combat operations and was disbanded in December 2014, had become increasingly involved in more intensive combat operations and gradually relied on airpower in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. The result was large numbers of civilian casualties and intense criticism of US and NATO forces by Afghan political leaders and the general public. Since 2015, the air campaign against the Taliban and other extremist groups has continued by US and Afghan forces. In October 2017, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the senior US military commander in Afghanistan, pledged that “a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon” in the war against Taliban insurgents. Changes to US rules of engagement in Afghanistan have made it easier for US forces to carry out airstrikes against the Taliban, with a resulting spike in civilian casualties. The emphasis on air power by the Trump administration resulted in an unprecedented 20,650 bombs being dropped on seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria) during his first six months in office and a large increase in the numbers of civilians being killed.

Contemporary armed conflicts tend to be concentrated in urban areas and to affect civilians: according to the NGO Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), in 2017 at least 16, 289 civilians were killed by explosive weapons, the vast majority in cities, an increase of 38 per cent compared to 2016. One important and new aspect of the latest AOAV data is that for the first time (since recording such data in 2010), air-launched weapons caused more civilian casualties than any other weapon type: air-launched explosive weapons killed and injured 14,342 civilians in 2017 (45% of all recorded), an increase of 44% from 2016. Of course, NATO member states are not the only countries to field and use air power. Many, of the casualties recorded by AOAV are attributed to non-NATO forces, such as the airstrikes by a Saudi‑led coalition in Yemen.

Also, NATO forces generally use more precision‑guided munitions (PGMs), which the alliance claims reduces the risk of civilian casualties. However, when PGMs are used in populated areas the civilian casualties can still be unacceptably high. In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for example, the US‑led coalition has conducted more than 27 500 airstrikes since August 2014. The coalition claims to have a meticulous target-selection process and often uses PGMs to minimize civilian casualties. However, an independent assessment of coalition airstrikes carried out in Iraq over an 18-month period found that one in five of the airstrikes resulted in civilian deaths—a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. Marc Garlasco, a UN military analyst and war crimes investigator, has identified four problems that may have contributed to this lack of precision: (a) a decrease in the strategic military incentives that come with protecting civilians; (b) new shifts in targeting tactics, techniques and procedures; (c) a ‘guilt by association’ approach to targeting—whereby people killed in close proximity to the intended target are counted as non-civilians; (d) and a reduction in the military’s investigative resources for monitoring civilian casualties.

None of these problems appear to have been addressed or even considered in the NATO air strategy document, although it does caution that the emergence of densely populated “megacities” in the years ahead will make targeting enemies increasingly difficult:

“Given the trend that engagements during conflict occur in more densely populated areas, detecting and targeting, while considering the Law of Armed Conflict, will become increasingly challenging as urbanisation continues to proliferate and megacities emerge”.

The document also notes the need for effective “strategic communications”. “Winning the information war can be every bit as important as winning the war in the air”, the document says, with a clear emphasis on the need to rebut disinformation on civilian casualties:

“The more prominent air power becomes in an operation the more likely it is that it will be targeted by disinformation campaigns designed to distort or to malign the Alliance’s intent and/or quality of execution. Adversaries, especially those in the asymmetric environment, are acutely aware of the impact of air power which is often essential for success. Therefore, limiting its use will be a central element of adversarial information operations; notably, this will include claims of civilian casualties, or the exploitation of events involving civilian casualties. NATO cannot afford to have its air power capabilities unnecessarily constrained and this makes it even more essential that the communications aspects are taken account of in planning and execution of air operations. Effective StratCom is a critical requirement in diplomatic and informational environments to protect NATO’s freedom of action in the air such that the Alliance can maximise the effects from its airborne capabilities”.

It is disappointing that a ‘values-based alliance’ doesn’t appear to take its responsibility for potential civilian casualties from air power more seriously. As a blueprint for allied nations as they build and deploy air and space capabilities, the joint strategy document ought to have emphasised the requirement under international law to thoroughly investigate any killing of civilians and it should have committed the alliance to introducing a casualty recording mechanism that is open, transparent and available to public scrutiny.