PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Wargaming the laws of armed conflict

At War on the Rocks today, Thomas Gordon IV, Adam Oler, Laurie Blank, and Jill Goldenziel discuss “Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter: Wargaming the Role of Law in War.”

In partnership with National Defense University and the Emory University School of Law’s  International Humanitarian Law Clinic, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College implemented National Defense University’s “Burning Sands” wargame for the student body of 213 midcareer military officers and civilian counterparts. Burning Sands was created by faculty at the National War College and designed by National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning for the university’s War Crimes and Strategy elective. As students simulate a joint force command staff tasked with liberating an Islamic State-controlled city in North Africa (a fictional scenario based on Israel’s experience during its 2014 “Operation Protective Edge”), they navigate war’s changing character —and recognize its enduring nature.

At the start of the wargame, the students received an order with three mandates. First, they were tasked to secure the town as quickly as possible. Second, U.S. and coalition casualties were to be kept to a minimum. Third, students had to comply with strict rules of engagement, including stringent limitations on civilian casualties. None of these demands were surprising, at least initially. Political pressure to achieve military objectives rapidly and with minimal casualties is hardly new. Minimizing civilian suffering maintains coalitions, undergirds military ethics and the profession of arms, and is central to the just war idea. To accomplish the mission, students were provided a variety of military forces and weapons, ranging from special forces to cruise missiles.

Through a series of injects, students faced immediate operational dilemmas that raised legal questions and, in due time, presented challenges to the legitimacy of U.S. and coalition actions. Students quickly ascertained that, as several put it, “I can get you two, ma’am, but not all three mandates.” Students were required to assess the legal, operational, and policy issues and brief the joint force commander accordingly. To be clear, none of the options were close to ideal. Each time the coalition attacked a target, the results were immediately captured on video and broadcast to the world. For example, when the game started, students learned that the Islamic State was operating its main command and control node deep inside the city’s only hospital. As designed, the students wrestled with whether and how attacking the hospital would be legal once the Islamic State was using it for military purposes, as well as the accompanying moral and operational considerations. To start, the target could be destroyed with minimal coalition casualties with a large air-delivered ordnance. However, this decision would increase the prospect of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the students could recommend a ground assault on the hospital to neutralize the command and control node, limiting civilian casualties but increasing the risk to coalition forces. Most students asked for more time and intelligence reports, but the joint force commander reminded them of the time pressure imposed by Washington. Students would have to make a timely decision, as they would in the real world, in the absence of complete information….

Read the rest at the link above.

One response to “Wargaming the laws of armed conflict

  1. Tracy Johnson 02/02/2021 at 9:55 pm

    As law students, they obviously got it all wrong. What they should have done is send a team of lawyers into town with eviction and property condemnation notices!

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