Air strikes and terror attacks examined

An interview with Justin Bronk

Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow at The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) where he specialises in combat airpower and technology in the Military Science team. Bronk writes on air power issues for the RUSI Journal, RUSI Defence Systems, RUSI Newsbrief, the Journal of Strategic Studies and the RAF Airpower Journal, and also serves as Editor of the RUSI Defence Systems online journal. Finally, he is also, he is a doctoral candidate at Kings College London’s Defence Studies Department.

What are, in your opinion, the most concerning aspects of precision bombing and from basing a counterinsurgency campaign on aerial power? In terms of civilian consequences and decreasing the threat from the enemy.
The thing that concerns me most is the lack of public or political awareness around the differences between the way that the US-led coalition and NATO countries in general conduct airstrikes – where incredible amounts of effort is made to avoid civilian casualties (which is not the same as saying that they do not occur – they absolutely do, but it’s not for a lack of trying), and operations like the Syrian and Russian governments’ aerial bombardment siege campaigns in Syria, which often one sees conflated.

They have the double problem, in my perspective, of both somehow legitimising (or partly legitimising) horrific, indiscriminate, deliberate terror attacks designed to target populated areas on the one hand. But, also potentially suggesting there is less point to all the efforts and all the advances made in civilian casualty reduction efforts and technology from Western countries. For example, there is the fact that several thousand weapons were dropped in Libya and the number of civilian casualties attributed to airstrikes reached between zero and six. It’s completely extraordinary and a total outlier in the history of warfare, but it also leads to another issue of concern which is that it leads governments to make statements like the ones around Iraq and Syria. For example, RAF’s statements saying that “to the best of our knowledge, we do not know of a single incident where British airstrikes have killed civilians,” which is often taken as saying “we have not killed any civilians” which is almost certainly untrue.

It also plays into a public perception that modern war can somehow be clean and avoid killing people which is just not true. Wars and interventions should be weighed up as what they are – horrific. Of course, the MoD thinks it is useful to have an appreciation for how much better we have become in discretion, in avoiding civilian casualties wherever possible. If you were to move to a scenario which is less discretionary, such as state-on-state conflicts, it would be a completely different story. There would simply be no way of avoiding large-scale civilian casualties if any exchanges took place in, and around, built-up areas, which is most places these days. So again, it is important to differentiate a discretionary campaign in a far-off place where you have freedom of action in the air and in which you can take your time, with something where people are genuinely shooting back, and where you do not have the luxury of more-or-less 24/7 overhead surveillance assets.

To what extent do Western militaries recognise the correlation of suicide attacks with unintentional civilian harm caused by airstrikes? (Just to compare, ISIS uses this link a lot, pointing to the suffering that airstrikes cause as a justification for carrying out suicide attacks.)
There have been studies on areas such as the impact on the frequency of IEDs and suicide attacks of successful airstrikes or ground operations against specific military targets such as local militia leaders. In Iraq, for example, the US military conducted internal studies. But the results of such studies tended not to influence policy too much.

Do you know what the studies showed?
One thing that was very clear by studying Iraq to understand the after-effects of taking out a local militia leader is that the frequency of IED strikes goes up significantly within around 24-48 hours, lasting for at least the next week. This makes sense because once you take out the leader of an insurgent cell, they are almost always replaced pretty quickly with someone younger, more ruthless, and with something to prove. So, there are plenty of internal and external studies suggesting that killing your way out of an insurgency problem is not a viable option. But of course, if you look at campaigns against enemy forces like ISIS, civilian casualties caused by airstrikes tend not to feature too much in terms of popular opinion as they are much more concerned with who has taken over and started hanging people on the streets.

So again, it is all context-dependent. It depends how much legitimacy the target you are going after has in the eyes of the local population. One interesting piece of feedback from Helmand Province, when the British deployed near Kajaki was that there was a widespread opinion among the locals that the British were in league with the Taliban. This was fuelled by multiple occasions where the locals knew where the Taliban were and were therefore wondered why “you Brits, with your magic technology, you must know where they are, so why don’t you start hitting them? Even we know where they are.” Of course, the reason was that the British forces were trying to minimise civilian casualties by being extremely careful about the use of heavy weapons and airstrikes. Eventually, the US Marines had to go in and try to stabilise the situation. Despite the fact that their much greater reliance on heavy weaponry caused many more civilian casualties, they encountered a generally more positive reception because in local perceptions “at least they are fighting the Taliban”. So again, it is interesting when we try to understand how perceptions are going to be shaped in cultures that are really different from our own.

The interesting thing in Helmand is that we largely created an insurgency that was not there before. There was a total misunderstanding of how to actually bring security to this population but also in going to a place with a very long colonial memory. Pashtun culture celebrates having beaten the British twice before in good fights. When British Paras spread out with very little support across Helmand, they basically had to rely on airstrikes and direct fire to avoid being overrun as the Taliban paid local people and foreign fighters to attack them. These defensive battles killed an awful lot of Taliban fighters but a lot of them were farmers who joined for money to go and shoot at the British. So, again, yes, we were killing the Taliban very effectively so to speak, but most of the ‘Taliban’ at this stage were local people. Also, by relying on heavy firepower, of course, not only did we kill a lot of farmers and farmers’ sons, but we also demolished half of the settlements around their structures.

So again, it is not necessarily a direct correlation with individual casualty events, it’s more the pattern of trying to bring stability to a region with forces that are totally inadequate for the task and then having to rely on massive firepower to defend them which causes huge damage and alienates the population over time. Militaries are built to kill people and break things, not rebuild nations or build them from scratch in the case of Afghanistan. So, I think it is slightly more complicated than just saying that more airstrikes lead to more suicide attacks. In Iraq and Syria, a lot of suicide attacks are by foreign fighters, and not necessarily local people from the areas being fought over.

But foreign fighters could still act in retaliation for a large number of civilians killed, even though the casualties were not their brothers, sisters and cousins?
Well, most foreign fighters have already made up their minds and motivations by the time they are there, armed and fighting. But again, in terms of publicly available large studies directly comparing these linkages, there are none to my knowledge.

Does the RAF, or Western militaries in general, consider the ‘uneven’ nature of the fight, in terms of whether pilots thousands of miles away motivate terrorists further to act in revenge?
Basically, particularly around drones, this issue has come up a lot where the Western public is not particularly comfortable with the idea that somehow, we do not have skin in the game, and that it is ‘unfair’. The entire Western way of war is designed around the idea that any fight you go into should be as unfair as conceivably possible. If we were to send soldiers into a fair fight with a Kalashnikov, some bread and something to drink, this would be absolutely inappropriate from a Western perspective. The whole point is to make it as conceivably unfair as you can make it. I do not think that there is any concern about that aspect within Western militaries.

But it seems quite obvious that the calls for retaliation are fuelled by the lack of ‘man to man’ fighting?
Well, in Afghanistan you got a certain amount of respect, in terms of this warrior culture, from the initial few deployments in Helmand because undeniably they fought incredibly well. The problem is that British troops also destroyed half of their towns, so, it does not really help your image when the local population does not see you as bringing security. When you look at how stability was achieved in Northern Ireland, it had very little to do with sending proper door-kickers from fighting troops into unstable areas during the Troubles. In fact, things sometimes went particularly badly when we did that. It is much better to have local police up front to support military forces behind the scenes. So again, I do not think that the ‘unfair’ aspect is such a big deal. I think that signature strikes, however, are a huge aspect in recruiting.

Drone strikes, when they are used to hit people who are classed as targets according to a certain behaviour (military age male and in a group of more than three and carrying a weapon), have been carried out in areas like Afghanistan, Waziristan, Yemen and Somalia. These communities learn very quickly that you can become a target simply by being in a large group and given that a weapon is more or less a part of your national dress, it means you will get hit, whether if it is a wedding or whatever. You risk getting blown up. So, they stop doing it.

These tribal groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan live in small hamlets but come together for meetings. So, the whole culture revolves around the process of walking to meetings, sitting down and talking. As such, there is a disruption of normal life when airstrikes occur and, as far as communities are concerned, it is just farmers and their sons whom the Americans are accusing of being terrorists and therefore legitimate targets. This is a huge recruitment tool that fuels massive anger, particularly when the strikes take place outside of recognised conflict zones. So I think that is probably much more significant than the sort of ‘bombs are dropped, it kills a family, let’s carry out more strikes’. Particularly in Afghanistan where there is a cultural understanding of that in fighting, that sort of thing happens, as we saw from the different responses from the different styles of fighting from the US Marines when they came in compared to the British.

ISIS, despite their ‘complaints’ of a lack of boots on the ground, could not give two hoots about civilian losses. They carry human shields around with them all the time and they refuse to let people out of areas that are about to be attacked. In terms of boots on the ground, they also complain when special forces are sent in… So, sorry, but Islamic State recruitment propaganda is going to use whichever angles they find convenient, and which do not necessarily point to their core beliefs. The fact that when they do encounter Western troops on the ground things get really bad for them is not going to appear in their literature.

Part of the reason why the campaign against ISIS is taking so many years is that there has been a British Government policy for zero civilian casualties during large periods of the UK’s participation, rather than a mandate by international humanitarian law (IHL). IHL does not require zero civilian casualties, only proportionality. But, politically, it is more about domestic sensitivity to civilian casualty events. So basically, what you have seen is that whilst the rules have been progressively relaxed for the UK, particularly in the first few years, you had significant targets that were repeatedly not targeted because of the danger to civilian casualties.

For example, a shipment of rockets being smuggled across the border was being tracked for multiple days, but if you hit the trucks full of explosives it will cause problems. Normally collateral damage assessments do not require you to model secondary explosions because that is not your responsibility – it is the responsibility of whoever put the explosives there. But, in this case, the truck was tracked for 38 hours until it finally reached an area clear of buildings and civilian traffic and only then it was hit.

It is incredibly expensive to do that. It requires huge air force resources in place, repeated crew rotations and, where the Air Force to lose it at any point, those rockets would have been fired as intended and caused huge damage and loss of life. So again, it is not to say that what Western militaries are doing is because they are totally virtuous. It is because they understand that they must do the best they can as individuals – nobody wants to go home to their families having killed civilians. At the same time, it is a political decision to go for a zero civilian casualty policy rather than to go for the usual ‘minimum possible within the scope of military necessity’.

How big a role does civilian casualty consideration play in the RAF?
It is an overriding concern in most cases in Iraq and Syria. Targets that are important will not be targeted if the RAF knows there are going to be significant civilian casualties out of it. If there is a local ISIS commander in a car with one other person that they suspect is a civilian, then yes, you might hit that car. But again, for most of the campaign, British government policy would say that this is not how we do it. The zero civilian casualty policy has been relaxed in recent years but is still far beyond what IHL and the principle of proportionality requires. So yes, it is absolutely a dominant factor in the RAF’s strike planning and operations. But of course, as I said before, that sort of operating is deeply impractical for any high-intensity warfighting.

You are not just paying the cost of a slower campaign and more civilian casualties on the ground caused by ISIS (because the war goes on longer), but you are also paying the cost of steadily decreasing readiness because your aircrew has to spend more and more time on close air support with the number one focus being civilian casualty avoidance. This is not how you would fight if you wanted to stop the Russians coming through Eastern Europe.

Does the notion that airstrikes might fuel radicalism feature in the RAF’s strategy in any way – or is this a political consideration that has no bearing on military action?
The RAF will consider the direct impact on civilian casualties and proportionality absent of political drivers to push it beyond what IHL requires. So, in other words, in a hearts and minds campaign, you might choose to apply a fairly strict civilian casualty limitation policy beyond what IHL and proportionality legally require. In this case, of course, it is politically directed, and it is even more strict than that, so it does not get to the point where the RAF has free way to decide how it might impact the moral or public support or legitimacy – that is not really the RAF’s job in this case.