Pentagon revamps how it prevents, handles collateral damage in strikes

by Tommy Grant

The Defense Department on Friday unveiled its new rules for reducing harm to civilians while striking military targets, a development inspired by 2021 reviews of the U.S.’ erroneous targeting of civilians in Syria.

The 52-page document outlines how the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Plan will be integrated from the highest levels of the Pentagon down to the services and combatant commands. The document details DOD’s efforts to prevent striking civilians, and also directs how to handle the aftermath when civilian casualties result.

“The release of the DOD instruction continues the process of improving the department’s approach to mitigating and responding to civilian harm,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said during a press briefing.

The development comes as a result of two reviews that first launched in 2021, one that analyzed a 2019 strike in Baghouz, Syria, which killed dozens of civilians, and another that occurred during the battle to reclaim Raqqa, Syria, from ISIS in 2017 and 2018.

Both reviews found that the Defense Department did not have codified policies on preventing civilian harm or handling its aftermath.

The new document calls for organizations to identify needs — whether in the form of surveillance and reconnaissance or weapons or other resources — to be able to more precisely target and execute strikes. It also directs the Pentagon to develop professional harm reduction experts.

Following strikes, the new guidelines require organizations to conduct investigations, communicate condolences to communities affected and compile and distribute lessons learned.

The Pentagon on Friday also unveiled Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response website, a landing page with policies, reports and contact information for reporting casualties.

Also in development is a civilian harm reduction “center of excellence.” The Pentagon announced in April that it will be headed up by Michael McNerney, one of the lead researchers involved in the 2022 report on Raqqa.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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