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U.S. Works With Allies, Partners to Minimize Civilian Casualties

Gerald Scroop

September 23, 2020

The U.S. government is working with allies and partner nations to mitigate civilian casualties during military operations by partners, government officials said during a recent background briefing.

"Harm by U.S. security partners undertaking military operations has long been an issue of serious concern for those of us administering security cooperation and defense trade policy," a State Department official said.

Highlighting the problem were Saudi strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen in which civilian casualties ensued. The United States — alone among all arms exporters — has put in place policies that will mitigate this danger.

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Both the departments of  State and Defense have been working for over two years to better integrate civilian protection into arms transfers.

"The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, in close cooperation with the Department of State, has expanded its efforts to include promotion of civilian protection in both foreign military sales and security cooperation," a Defense Department official said. "And this includes expanding training for partners and providing additional advisory support with a specific emphasis on mitigation of civilian harm." 

The program is worldwide and in line with U.S. efforts to share the security burden. This means building strong security institutions that respect the rule of law and human rights. "Civilian harm caused by U.S.-supported partner forces pose[s] a risk to the reputation of the United States and to our strategic objectives," the State official said.

The process involves sharing best practices with foreign partners and runs the gamut from new processes to new equipment to training. 

While the State Department oversees foreign military sales policy, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency must put in place the processes needed to minimize civilian deaths. The agency has expanded the scope of what it can offer partners, ranging from new curriculum for civilian harm mitigation training, to the development of advisory materials and services, to technical solutions to help partners more effectively and responsibly conduct operations.

"We've also been working on conducting assessments of a partner's risk of causing civilian harm during military operations, and identifying the means to help mitigate such risks," the State Department official said. 

The emphasis on preventing civilian deaths is part of the process [in deciding] whether a potential military sale or grant should even be made, the State Department  official said.

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U.S. efforts in Saudi Arabia pre-dated the conventional arms transfer policy and can be used to inform approaches with other partners moving forward. The United States established a comprehensive plan to work with the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels to reduce the risk of civilian harm. This has included law of armed conflict targeting training, regular key leader engagement, training seminars for the entire targeting lifecycle, including U.S. advisors, officials said. The U.S. also recently sold  additional technical capabilities to allow more precise and effective deployment of munitions.

A good specific example is the collateral damage estimation methodology the U.S. offers that was also adopted by NATO. "It is something that the U.S. develops and updates and releases," the Defense official said. "It's something that the U.S. focuses on that you wouldn't have the ability to get through other arms partners."

The United States needs partner nations to be responsible with U.S.-supplied weapons systems, and the partners also want this. "We want to give them the tools … to succeed and the tools to be effective," the State Department official said. "The partners themselves really put a premium on being … effective and having effective and professional militaries."

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