Gulf War

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COLLATERAL DAMAGE IN THE GULF WAR: EXPERIENCE AND LESSONS
THOMAS KEANEY
The Gulf War of 1991 introduced a new set of issues concerning collateral damage. Although the U.S. military had faced controversy concerning the targeting and effects of aerial bombing in previous wars of the 20th Century, the day-by-day reporting and political context of the Gulf War brought increased scrutiny of the air attacks. Ironically, attention increased even as the employment of precision weapons decreased the occurrence of unintentional damage. This paper discusses these experiences by exploring the various factors that shaped the incidents of collateral damage in the Gulf War, how the U.S. military viewed collateral damage, and the lessons learned. The term ‘collateral damage’ has particular relevance in discussing the legal and moral dimensions of warfare as codified and as derived from traditional Just War doctrine. However, the political effects of such damage are also important to address. In the Gulf War, political effects included the reactions of the U.S. leadership to incidents of civilian deaths from aerial bombing, even in those cases in which the Coalition air campaign had adhered to the legal constraints on targeting as defined in the laws of war. An examination of U.S. military lessons learned from the Gulf War requires an introduction to the conditions in the region and the circumstances under which operations unfolded. First, physical conditions in the theater limited the occurrence of collateral damage. A great majority of the aerial attacks were against the Iraqi army and took place in what was called the Kuwaiti theater of operations, a region including Kuwait itself and the southeast portion of Iraq immediately adjacent. In this area, the Iraqi army was situated away from areas with significant civilian populations. The one exception was Kuwait City and its surrounding environment; the Iraqi army’s decision to evacuate that city quickly after the initiation of the Coalition ground attack limited the damage there as well. Other frequently attacked targets, such as Iraqi airfields and suspected Scud concealment and launching sites, were also situated away

from population centers. Thus, despite the extensive scale of the air attacks—often up to 3,000 sorties a day—the number of strikes that caused collateral damage was relatively small. Second, the use of precision weapons also limited the incidence of collateral damage. Though only seven to eight percent of the weapons employed were precision-guided, those weapons were used largely in Iraq proper and on targets in or near cities. Since the targets located near or in Iraqi cities tended to be fixed installations, with known characteristics and surroundings, it was more feasible to make careful calculations of possible collateral damage. Much more challenging were mobile or emerging targets, although these were largely located in the Kuwaiti theater away from civilian populations. The two most significant instances of civilian deaths in the war illustrate these conditions and demonstrate the problems likely encountered when attempting to conduct an air campaign in close proximity to civilian-populated areas. Both of these instances employed precision weapons and took place in Iraqi cities, away from the Kuwaiti theater; yet a significant number of unanticipated civilian deaths resulted. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the bombing of the Al Firdos bunker in Baghdad, because targeteers did not know that civilians had taken shelter there. In addition, many civilians died in a marketplace after a laser-guided bomb lost its guidance information and missed its target. To frame this discussion of the Gulf War properly, some understanding is needed of what the military leaders knew, or were in a position to know, during the war. Remarkably, even with the United States’ extensive intelligence collection capability, what happened as a result of each of the bombing missions...
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