Archive for April, 2013

GUAM AND STRATEGIC GEOMETRY – KEYSTONE OF AMERICAN MILITARY STRATEGY IN THE PACIFIC

April 30, 2013

American policy in the Pacific continues to be based on Alfred Thayer Mahan’s precepts: forward operation bases, positioning assets around choke- points and main sealanes, deploying a navy presence on all seas, and maintaining the capability to intervene at key geostrategic points.

American strategic thinking is further influenced by geopolitician Homer Lea. In his books The Valor of Ignorance and The Day of the Saxon, Lea regarded frontiers are mobile lines.

Should this view be used to interpret recent American strategy in the Asia Pacific, it would appear there is an American desire to ensure America’s national interests. This translates into a triple line of defense:

• Japan-South Korea-Taiwan-Thailand-Singapore.

• Japan-Guam-Philippines-Australia.

• Alaska/Aleutian Islands-Hawaii-Samoa.

Lea insisted on the need to rely on forward operation bases in the form of a triangle. “Strategic geometry” was the key principle on which much of his work was based, a strategy that translates quite well into what is currently taking place in the Asia-Pacific region. His argument is that there is a need to take into account:

• The number of triangles the bases will form.

• The frequency with which the main base is at the intersection of these triangles.

• The presence or not of enemy bases inside this network.

• The increase of maritime power leading to an increase in the number of bases.

By forming numerous triangles with Guam as the potential center or node, the United States is actually executing the argument presented by Lea.

Other examples of strategic triangles are the “Guam-Japan-South Korea,” “Guam-Darwin-Pearl Harbor,” “Guam-Taiwan-Japan” triangles.

For further information see “The Reassertion of the United States in the Asia- Pacific Region” byTanguy STruye de Swielande in journal Parameters of Spring 2012.

BBC News on its website describes Guam as an important staging post, allowing rapid access to potential flashpoints in the Koreas and in the Taiwan Strait. Excerpts below:

The largest military installation, Andersen Air Force Base, was used by B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Nuclear attack submarines are based on the island.

The waters off Guam are the scene of major US navy war games.

The US plans to move 8,000 Marines and 10,000 dependents from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to Guam by 2014 as part of its global realignment of US forces.

Visitors from Japan are the mainstay of the tourist industry. Away from the resorts and shopping malls, coral reefs and waterfalls are among the natural attractions.

Guam’s diverse population includes Japanese, Chinese, and incomers from other Pacific islands. The indigenous Chamorro are a people of mixed Micronesian, Spanish and Filipino descent.

The island was settled in the second century BC. A Spanish expedition led by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521.

Guam was ceded to the US in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The island was occupied by Japan during World War II. Many Guamanians died under the occupation before the territory was wrested from Japanese control in 1944.

Guam is vulnerable to storms. Typhoons swept across the island in 2002, leaving around 35,000 people homeless.

U.S. REPUBLICANS URGE OBAMA TO ENFORCE SYRIA ‘RED LINE’, OPPOSE DEPLOYING TROOPS

April 29, 2013

Fox News on April 28, 2013, reported that Congressional Republicans said that President Obama must stick with his vow to take action should Syria cross a “red line” by using chemical weapons on citizens, amid such mounting evidence, but cautioned against sending in troops. Excerpts below:

“The president has laid down the line, and it can’t be a dotted line,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told ABC’s “This Week.” “It can’t be anything other than a red line.”

“For America to sit on the sidelines and do nothing is a huge mistake,” Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain has been among congressional Republicans most critical of the president’s stance on Syria.

He argued on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the red line strategy has given Assad a “green light” to do almost everything up to that point — including the use of missiles, helicopter attacks and other civilian strikes that have resulted in “atrocities on a scale that we have not seen in a long, long time.”

However, he joined a bipartisan call this weekend against sending U.S. troops into Syria.

“The worst thing we could do is put boots on the ground,” McCain said.

He and fellow Hill lawmakers fear the chemical weapons could be more dangerous in the hands of U.S. enemies or those who might overthrow Assad. And he joined in calls for the United States to be part of an international force to safeguard the weapons.

“The day after Assad [leaves] is the day that these chemical weapons could be at risk,” Chicago Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky told ABC. “We could be in bigger, even bigger trouble.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, also said the U.S. could safeguard the weapons without a ground force. But he said the weapons must be protected from getting into the hands of enemies.

“The next bomb that goes off in America may not have nails and glass,” he told CBS, referring to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing in which three people were killed and more than 260 others were injured.

Obama has also said Assad transferring the stockpile of weapons to terrorists would also cross the line.

The assessment that Syria used chemical weapons last month followed similar conclusions from Britain, France, Israel and Qatar — key allies eager for a more aggressive response to the Syrian conflict.

Obama has insisted that any use of such weapons would change his thinking about his country’s role in Syria but said he didn’t have enough information to order aggressive action.

SYRIA: AL-QAEDA’S BATTLE FOR CONTROL OF ASSAD’S CHEMICAL WEAPONS PLANT

April 28, 2013

Daily Telegraph, London, on April 27, 2013, reported that a battle near a factory believed to be one of the Syrian regime’s main chemical weapons plants shows just how close such weapons could be to falling into al-Qaeda’s hands…Excerpts below:

The town of al-Safira,…is a vicious battleground in Syria’s civil war. On one side are lightly-armed rebels, on the other are government troops, and in between is a hotly-contested no-man’s land of bombed-out homes and burned-out military vehicles.

The fight for al-Safira is no ordinary turf war, however, and the prize can be found behind the perimeter walls of the heavily-guarded military base on the edge of town. Inside what looks like a drab industrial estate is one of Syria’s main facilities for producing chemical weapons – and among its products is sarin, the lethal nerve gas that the regime is now feared to be deploying in its bid to cling to power.

Last week, Washington said for the first time that it had evidence of Sarin being used in “small” amounts during combat operations in Syria…

But as the West now ponders its response, the fear is not just that President Assad might start using his chemical arsenal in much greater quantities. Of equal concern is the prospect of it falling into even less benign hands – a risk that the stand-off at al Safira illustrates clearly.

For among the rebel lines in al-Safira flutters the black flag of the al-Nusra Brigade, the jihadist group that recently declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Known for their fighting prowess honed in Iraq, they are now taking the lead in nearly every frontline in the Syrian war, and earlier this month, pushed to within just over a mile of al-Safira, only to for the Syrian troops to regain the ground last week.

Should the tide of battle turn in al-Nusra’s favour again, though, there is the possibility of the West’s worst-case scenario unfolding – Syria’s weapons of mass destruction falling into al-Qaeda’s control. More than 500 times as toxic as cyanide and deadly in milligram-sized doses, a single canister of sarin could unleash carnage if released on a Tube network in London or New York.

Yet it is not just at al-Safira that the danger lies. As the Syrian uprising has intensified in the past year, the regime has been secretly moving its stockpiles to weapons dumps all over the country, much of which it barely controls anymore. Nobody knows, therefore, when or where a cache might be captured by the opposition’s more militant factions.

“The West may be saying: ‘A red line has been crossed, let’s do something’. But the question is what exactly can they do?” said Dina Esfandiary, an expert on Syria’s WMD programme with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based defence and security think-tank. “Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons are huge, and President Assad has done a very good job of hiding them all over the country.”

The Syrian regime’s chemical warchest is indeed vast – the biggest in the Middle East, and the fourth largest in the world. Started in the 1970s ranks with help from Syria’s Cold War sponsor, Russia, today its programme includes facilities for making mustard gas, sarin and another nerve agent, VX, which stays lethal for much longer after dispersal.

In charge of the programme is the innocuous-sounding Scientific Studies and Research Centre outside Damascus, a body officially tasked with academic research. In practice, it reports directly to President Assad and operates a string of chemical production facilities, some allegedly developed with help from Iran and North Korea.

As Syria has not signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention, it has never declared details of its stockpiles to the outside world. But outside intelligence estimates reckon that Damascus has between 100 and 200 warheads filled with sarin for its Scud missiles, and thousands of chemical artillery bombs filled with sarin and VX.

Nobody outside the Assad regime now knows for certain where the stockpiles are now: the contents of the plant at Safira, for example, may have been moved to other, more secret storage spaces for safekeeping. But that uncertainty adds to the challenge. With such a vast arsenal scattered nationwide, the West would face a formidable task were it to attempt to secure it by force.

…many analysts believe that the “red line” is now simply being blurred rather than crossed. With only limited evidence of Sarin use so far, they suspect Damascus is deliberately using such weapons just occasionally to test – and gradually undermine – Washington’s resolve. President Assad, they reason, knows all too well that a major chemical attack would leave the US no option but to take action. But successive, smaller ones are a harder call, while still having the desired effect of spreading terror among Damascus’s foes.

Outside of Syria, it also has another desired effect – underlining the differences between Mr Assad’s opponents in the West. Last week,..US Republican senator, John McCain…called on America to send in troops to secure factories such as al Safira. But Mr Obama shows no enthusiasm for doing so, and this weekend he even appeared to adjust his language slightly, saying that America would not permit the “systematic” use of chemical weapons.

PHILIPPINES ACCUSED OF TRYING TO ‘ILLEGALLY’ OCCUPY SOUTH CHINA SEA TERRITORIES

April 27, 2013

Daily Telegraph, London, on April 26, 2013, reported that China accused the Philippines of attempting to “illegally” occupy and seize territories in the South China Sea and rejected calls for international mediation. Excerpts below:

The dispute, over the Spratly islands and other interests in the South China Sea, is one of a number of increasingly acrimonious maritime struggles playing out in the region with Beijing pitted against the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

China has been at loggerheads with its Asian neighbours for decades over the South China Sea but recent years have seen tensions escalate amid fears that Beijing is seeking to asset greater control over the region.

In late January, the Philippines reportedly requested that a UN tribunal intervene in the dispute over the territories, which are located in waters that are believed to hold potentially significant oil and gas reserves as well as fishing resources.

On April 26 after it was announced that a UN tribunal would consider the Philippines’ complaint, Beijing struck back.

“The Philippine side is trying to use this to negate China’s territorial sovereignty and attach a veneer of ‘legality’ to its illegal occupation of Chinese islands and reefs,” China’s foreign ministry said.

China’s rebuttal follows claims, earlier in the year, that the Philippines had deployed a growing number of troops to the Spratly islands in order to “boost its military presence in the contested South China Sea.”

Tensions in the South China Sea were one of the key issues raised at a two-day meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations or ASEAN this week in Brunei.

“Everybody is interested in having a peaceful resolution and also in voicing … concern that there have been increasing disputes,” the Philippines’ president, Benigno Aquino, said on Wednesday, according to AFP.

…the Philippines’ foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, told local media that the international arbitration over disputes in the South China Sea would continue, with or without China’s blessing.

BOSTON MARATHON BOMBERS’ NEXT TARGET WAS TIMES SQUARE, SAYS BLOOMBERG

April 26, 2013

Fox News on April 25, 2013, reported that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects had Times Square in their sights before law enforcement authorities put an end to their bloody terror spree, according New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Excerpts below:

“New York was next on their list of targets,” Bloomberg said of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Bloomberg said he received confirmation of the chilling second phase of their plot from the FBI. “The fact is, New York City remains a prime target for those who hate America and want to kill Americans.”

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the brothers, Muslims from Dagestan,… hatched their plot to attack Times Square while driving the streets of Cambridge in a Mercedes SUV they had carjacked from a man who later escaped. Kelly called the New York plot “spontaneous,” and said they had six bombs with them in the car, some of which they hurled at police cars hours later when they were being pursued in a chase that culminated in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s death.

One of the bombs the brothers had in the stolen car was a pressure cooker bomb, identical to one used in the marathon attack, and packed with gunpowder and shrapnel, Kelly said.

The mayor said there was no way of knowing if the brothers could have pulled off a second attack in America’s largest city.

Times Square was targeted by Muslim terrorist Faisal Shahzad in a failed 2010 plot. Kelly said at least one Tsarnaev brother was photographed in Times Square last year, first on April 18 and then later on an unspecified day in November.

Kelly said the plot was revealed in a bedside interrogation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center,…

The 19-year-old suspect spoke to FBI agents intermittently over a 16-hour period before a federal judge showed up at the hospital and read him his Miranda rights, after which he clammed up, according to law enforcement sources.

PUTIN CREATING ‘WORST HUMAN RIGHTS CLIMATE SINCE SOVIET TIMES’

April 25, 2013

Daily Telegraph, London, on April 24, 2013, reported that Vladimir Putin is presiding over the worst era for Russian human rights since the Soviet Union, according to two new reports by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Excerpts below:

Mr Putin, who was re-elected as president almost a year ago, stands accused of bringing in new laws to stifle criticism of his regime and adapting existing laws to silence dissent.

“The Russian government has unleashed a crackdown on civil society unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history,” the HRW report states.

“The authorities have introduced a series of restrictive laws, harassed, intimidated and in several case imprisoned political activists, interfered in the work of NGOs and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies.”

Since the start of the year, the Russian authorities have carried out more than 200 inspections of organisations campaigning to protect human rights. Amnesty’s Moscow office was “inspected” by prosecutors and tax inspectors on 25 March.

In several cases the inspectors demanded to go through computers or emails. In one case, officials demanded that an organisation prove that its staff had been vaccinated for smallpox, and in another the officials asked for chest X-rays of staff to ensure they did not have tuberculosis.

Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW:

“The campaign is unprecedented in its scope and scale, and seems clearly aimed at intimidating and marginalising civil society groups. This inspection campaign can potentially be used to force some groups to end advocacy work, or to close them down.”

Another law, adopted in December, essentially banned funding emanating from the United States for “political” activity by non-governmental organisations, and bans groups whose work is “directed against Russia’s interests.”

A third law, the treason law, expands the legal definition of treason in ways that could criminalise involvement in raising awareness of human rights.

The publication of the reports comes at a time of mounting pressure for Mr Putin.

On April 24 a high-profile critic of the president went on trial for what he said were trumped-up charges.

Alexei Navalny, 36, told a court in the city of Kirov that they should throw out the charges of stealing from a timber firm.

Mr Navalny has suggested that Mr Putin ordered the trial to stop his criticism of “swindlers and thieves” in government and sideline him as a potential presidential rival.

Mr Navalny, who organised the biggest protests since Mr Putin rose to power 13 years ago, is accused of stealing 16 million roubles (£335,000) from a timber firm in Kirov that he was advising in 2009.

He also insisted his innocence would be apparent even if he was convicted.

“At the end of the trial, we will certainly win. I’m sure that a lack of guilt will be established.

“Even if it is not formally acknowledged by the court, it will be clear for everyone who attends the trial.”

JAPAN PM ABE WARNS CHINA OF FORCE OVER ISLANDS LANDING

April 24, 2013

BBC News on April 23, 2012, reported Japan would respond with force if any attempt is made to land on disputed islands, PM Shinzo Abe has warned. Excerpts below:

His comments came as eight Chinese government ships sailed near East China Sea islands that both nations claim.

A flotilla of 10 fishing boats carrying Japanese activists was also reported to be in the area, as well as the Japanese coastguard.

The warning from the Japanese prime minister was the most explicit to China since Mr Abe took power in December, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reported from Tokyo.

Asked in parliament what he would do if Chinese ships tried to land on the disputed islands, Mr Abe said they would be expelled by force.

There are more ships than I have ever seen before during one of these encounters – at least eight Chinese ships and an equal number of Japanese coastguard cutters.

Sailing alongside, dwarfed by the larger ships, are 10 fishing boats flying the Japanese flag and carrying right-wing Japanese nationalists from a group called Gambare Nippon.

It is the sort of situation that could quite easily get out of hand if, for example, the Japanese nationalists try to land on the islands, or if the Chinese ships try to board one of the Japanese fishing vessels.

China is now taking the position that its ships are there protecting “Chinese” territory, and consequently have the right to board any “foreign” vessels.

That may be why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to be more emphatic in his warning to China, making it explicit that if any of the Chinese vessels attempt to land on Japanese soil, they will be repelled with force.

He is laying down a clear line over which he hopes the Chinese know they would be unwise to cross.

The warning came as eight Chinese ships sailed around the islands – called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The Japanese coast guard said it was the highest number of Chinese boats in the area since Tokyo nationalised part of the island chain in September 2012.

Ten Japanese boats carrying around 80 activists arrived in the area early on the 23rd of April, Reuters news agency reported, monitored by Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Public broadcaster NHK said the boats were carrying “regional lawmakers and members of the foreign media”.

Japan’s top government spokesman said the “intrusion into territorial waters” was “extremely regrettable”. Japan also summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest, reports said.

The territorial row has been rumbling for years but was reignited last year when Japan bought three of the islands from their private Japanese owner.

China claims the island chain, which is controlled by Japan. Taiwan also claims the islands, which offer rich fishing grounds and lie in a strategically important area.

U.S. TO DEPLOY PATRIOT MISSILE BATTERIES ON JORDAN-SYRIA BORDER

April 23, 2013

The Washington Times on April 19, 2013, reported that an unnamed Jordan source said the U.S. military has agreed to the country’s request to put Patriot missile batteries along the border with Syria. Excerpts below:

A London newspaper quoting the Jordan source said the United States was sending two Patriot missile batteries to the area, The Times of Israel reported. The source also said the Patriot missile batteries would be transferred from sites in Qatar and Kuwait, and placed in strategic border spots that could best serve – and protect – the kingdom.

DRONE STRIKES: THE LEGALITY OF U.S. TARGETING TERRORISTS ABROAD – PART IV

April 22, 2013

Part IV What the U.S. Should Do

The U.S. drone program and its practices regarding targeted strikes against al-Qaeda and its associated forces are lawful. They are lawful because the United States is currently engaged in an armed conflict with those terrorist entities and because the United States has an inherent right to defend itself against imminent threats to its security. Moreover, the available evidence indicates that U.S. military and intelligence forces conduct targeted strikes in a manner consistent with international law. Military and intelligence officials go to great lengths to identify al-Qaeda operatives that pose an imminent threat and continually reassess the level of that threat. Decisions on each potential target are debated among U.S. officials before the target is placed in the “disposition matrix.” In conducting targeted strikes U.S. forces strive to minimize civilian casualties, although such casualties cannot always be prevented.

The United States will continue to face asymmetric threats from non-state actors operating from the territory of nations that are either unwilling or unable to suppress the threats. To confront these threats, the United States must retain its most effective operational capabilities, including targeted strikes by armed drones…

Moreover, the United States must continue to affirm its inherent right to self-defense to eliminate threats to its national security, regardless of the presence or absence of an armed conflict recognized by international law.

To that end, the United States should:

Continue to affirm existing use-of-force authorities

During the past three years, senior officials of the Obama Administration have publicly set out in significant detail U.S. policies and practices regarding drone strikes. The Administration should continue to do so, emphasizing that U.S. policies adhere to widely recognized international law.

No Drawdown of Strikes

At the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, NATO agreed that the vast majority of U.S. and other NATO forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a time frame that President Obama confirmed during this year’s State of the Union address.

Congress should pass no legislation that could be interpreted as an erosion of the inherent right of the United States to defend itself against imminent threats posed by transnational terrorist organizations.

Not create a drone court

The concept of a drone court is fraught with danger and may be an unconstitutional interference with the executive branch’s authority to wage war. U.S. armed forces have been lawfully targeting enemy combatants in armed conflicts for more than 200 years without being second-guessed by Congress or a secret “national security court.” Targeting decisions, including those made in connection with drone strikes, are carefully deliberated by military officers and intelligence officials based on facts and evidence gathered from a variety of human, signals, and imagery intelligence sources. During an armed conflict, all al-Qaeda operatives are subject to targeting; therefore, a drone court scrutinizing targeting decisions would serve no legitimate purpose.

Conclusion

The debate within the international legal, academic, and human rights communities on the legality and propriety of drone strikes will likely continue unabated. To surrender to the demands of such critics would be equivalent to forgetting the lessons of September 11, when a small, non-state terrorist organization operating from a nation with which the United States was not at war planned and launched an attack that killed almost 3,000 Americans.

The United States should preserve its ability to use all of the tools in its arsenal to ensure that the plots hatched by terrorist organizations do not become successful attacks on the U.S. homeland. Armed drones have proved to be one of the most effective and discriminating tools available to U.S. forces, and their lawful use should continue until such time as non-state, transnational terrorist organizations no longer present an imminent threat to the United States.

Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

DRONE STRIKES: THE LEGALITY OF U.S. TARGETING TERRORISTS ABROAD – PART III

April 21, 2013

Part III: Do U.S. Drone Strikes Adhere to the Law of War?

Targeted strikes, like any other military attack by U.S. armed forces, must adhere to recognized principles of the law of war.

The principles of the law of war are relevant to any armed attack, whether a Marine sniper firing on a distant combatant, Army attack helicopters striking an armored column, or a Navy warship targeting a bunker with a cruise missile.

The fundamental principles commonly discussed in the debate over drone strikes are necessity, distinction, and proportionality.

Necessity and Distinction

Under the law of war…an armed attack must adhere to the principles of necessity and distinction. A combatant must target only other combatants (the principle of “distinction”) and targeting such combatants must be considered militarily necessary to bring about the submission of the enemy (the principle of “necessity”).

The principle of distinction requires that only combatants and military objectives be targeted. While civilian casualties may occur during hostilities, intentionally targeting civilians is forbidden unless they “directly participate in hostilities.” The principle of necessity requires that an attack against an enemy provide the attacker with a “definite military advantage” for the purpose of effecting the “complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible.”

In a traditional armed conflict, decisions regarding whether a target satisfies the tests of distinction and necessity are straightforward. Enemy tanks, artillery, aircraft, warships, and infantry are obviously non-civilian in nature and almost always qualify as necessary to destroy in order to bring about the enemy’s submission. The conflict against al-Qaeda is less traditional because U.S. targeting analysis in the context of drone strikes focuses almost exclusively on individual enemy combatants—the commanders, lieutenants, facilitators, and other al-Qaeda operatives—rather than airfields, munitions plants, and the like. Moreover, al-Qaeda combatants regularly dress as civilians, pose as non-combatants, operate from civilian areas, and even use civilians and other protected persons and objects as shields.

Responding to allegations that targeting individual commanders is somehow unlawful under international law, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh stated:

[S]ome have suggested that the very act of targeting a particular leader of an enemy force in an armed conflict must violate the laws of war. But individuals who are part of such an armed group are belligerents and, therefore, lawful targets under international law. During World War II, for example, American aviators tracked and shot down the airplane carrying the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, who was also the leader of enemy forces in the Battle of Midway. This was a lawful operation then, and would be if conducted today. Indeed, targeting particular individuals serves to narrow the focus when force is employed and to avoid broader harm to civilians and civilian objects.

In any event, press reports indicate that the Obama Administration goes to great lengths in determining that an individual al-Qaeda operative is a non-civilian, militarily necessary target before qualifying the operative as subject to lethal force.

The publicly available information on the Obama Administration’s targeting analysis indicates that the U.S. military and CIA adhere to the principles of distinction and necessity. For example, in an April 2012 speech, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan described how armed drones are particularly well suited to carry out strikes against al-Qaeda militants while respecting the principle of distinction:

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted. With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaida terrorist and innocent civilians.

Reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post indicate that military, intelligence, and Administration officials oversee a rigorous process to determine whether a particular individual is necessary to target.

Over time the process for selecting targets evolved into a “next generation” targeting list known as the “disposition matrix.” The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) developed the matrix to “augment” the separate, but overlapping lists developed by the Pentagon and the CIA, resulting in “a single, continually evolving database in which biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations are all catalogued.” The targeting criteria focus on al-Qaeda’s operational leaders and key facilitators, and the names are submitted to a panel of National Security Council officials for approval. Targeting lists are reviewed regularly at meetings at NCTC headquarters attended by officials from the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA.

Proportionality

Even if an al-Qaeda operative is properly identified, placed in the “disposition matrix” and deemed militarily necessary to target, the law-of-war principle of “proportionality” must also be satisfied for a strike on that operative to be considered lawful. The principle of proportionality requires belligerents to take care to minimize harm to innocent civilians during an armed attack.

Specifically, the principle of proportionality prohibits attacks on military targets where the expected harm to civilians (for example, within the blast radius of an explosion) is excessive in comparison to the military advantage expected to be gained from the attack.

Senior Obama Administration officials, including State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh, Attorney General Eric Holder, and CIA General Counsel Stephen Preston have regularly affirmed in public speeches that the United States adheres to the principle of proportionality when striking al-Qaeda targets.

For example, John Brennan stated:

Targeted strikes conform to the principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. By targeting an individual terrorist or small numbers of terrorists with ordnance that can be adapted to avoid harming others in the immediate vicinity, it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.

By its nature, adherence to the principle of proportionality must be determined on a case-by-case, attack-by-attack basis. In the context of drone strikes, targeting analyses and decisions accounting for the principles of distinction and necessity are reportedly made by military and intelligence officials when al-Qaeda operatives are placed on the disposition matrix, likely well in advance of an actual attack. Factors concerning a determination of proportionality, by contrast, may usually be considered and weighed only after the target has been physically located and the surrounding environment assessed for potential civilian casualties.

That said, by their nature, drone strikes are designed to be precise attacks on individual targets of military significance as opposed to indiscriminate attacks, such as carpet bombing a military installation situated alongside civilian buildings or an artillery barrage on an armored column travelling through an area known to be populated by civilians. That is not to say that drone strikes have not caused civilian casualties. They have. However, no evidence indicates that U.S. armed forces or CIA officers, in carrying out targeted strikes, have disregarded the principle of proportionality.

In sum, no evidence indicates that U.S. targeted drone strikes violate the law of war principles of necessity, distinction, or proportionality, much less in any intentional, systematic, or chronic manner. To the contrary, the use of drones, which can loiter over a target for hours waiting for the optimal moment to strike, is a particularly effective method of eliminating individual terrorist threats while adhering to the law of war. The publicly available evidence indicates that the U.S. government chooses its targets carefully and regularly reassesses the threats posed by those targets. While there is no guarantee that all civilian casualties can be eliminated, the use of drone strikes, as opposed to an armed invasion or use of large munitions, vastly minimizes the exposure of civilians.

Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.