Modern Military Operations: A Normative Practice Approach to Moral Decision Making

Modern Military Operations: A Normative Practice Approach to Moral Decision Making

Christine Boshuijzen-van Burken (Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands & Netherlands Defence Academy, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8006-5.ch006
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Modern military operations are characterized by ubiquitous use of technology, in particular the use of information and communication technologies for real-time information sharing. The use of technology on the battlefield is assumed to improve decision making in military practice. By making use of a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan, namely the Sangin incident in 2011, the author highlights why moral decision making could be hampered by technology. This is partly due to the fact that information and communication technologies subtly connect sub-practices that exist within the broader military practice, thus potentially blurring normative structures. Blurring of normative structures can cause problems for moral decision making on the battlefield, because it is suddenly not clear who is responsible for the course of action.
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In the morning of April 6, 2011, at the Sangin river valley in Afghanistan, the pilot of a remotely piloted aircraft1 called Predator, performed an airstrike that turned out to be a catastrophe, because it had hit his own troops. Below follows a selection of the article in which the incident was later described.

At 8:40 a.m., the Predator crew spotted the heat signatures of three people. At 8:41, a burst of muzzle2 flashes emanated from the group.

A critical question was the direction of the muzzle fire. If the direction was east, toward friendly lines, they were potential insurgents trying to kill U.S. troops. If it was west, away from friendly lines, they might be U.S. personnel or other allies. The Predator crew and the forces in Afghanistan proceeded as if the muzzle fire were coming toward friendly positions. Only minutes earlier, ground forces had reported contact3 with the enemy over the Predator crew’s radio link. As the Predator circled over Sangin, its ARC-210 radio4 received transmissions from the ground and fed them into the drone’s satellite link, which relayed them to the Predator control station5 in California. Given the situation, the Predator crew was furiously scanning for targets to strike with one or more of the plane’s Hellfire missiles6.

At 8:41, the JTAC7 in Afghanistan sent the “9-line” message containing coordinates for a strike once approved by the ground commander. The analysts at DGS8 Indiana (DGS-IN) also saw the targets in the video feed. Their leader chimed in with a series of online messages raising questions about their identification as enemy.

If the DGS-IN analysts meant that the figures were too grainy or shadowy to say for sure whether they were U.S. troops, but that the enemy would not be firing in that direction, they were unable to convey this information unambiguously, partly because they did not have a voice link to the Predator crew.

After the strike, a member of the DGS team in Indiana told investigators about his team’s reservations about the strike:

At no time, to my knowledge, did any of the crew members feel comfortable firing upon the personnel,” according to written testimony from an Air Force staff sergeant stationed in Indiana, whose name was redacted. (Laster & Iannotta, 2012)9

In this incident an American marine staff sergeant and navy hospital man were killed by their own troops who operated the aircraft from thousands of miles away. The friendly fire incident was the result of (a number of) moral decisions. In these decisions, technology played a role, such as the thermal camera that provided the images. In the course of Laster & Iannotta’s article a solution to prevent friendly fire incidents in the future is suggested:

The investigators recommended that in the future, any intelligence or information that could prevent fratricide or a violation of the Law of Armed Conflict be posted to the crew’s main chat room so that the entire crew would see it. However, despite the pilot’s comments and their own recommendation, the investigators said they were doubtful that posting the conflicting information would have changed the outcome in Sangin on April 6.

It was “likely that the strike would have occurred anyway due to the ground force’s perception of friendly disposition and the source of enemy contact,” the investigators said. In a January interview with Air Force Times, Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Otto said the investigators’ conclusion “rang true” about the near-inevitability of the mistake, given the circumstances. “You have to understand, the Sangin Valley is bad-guy territory,” Otto said. “If you don’t know where the friendlies are, it’s pretty difficult for you to know [what] to overturn based on what one of the supporting forces thought”. (ibid)

The solution is sought in adding more technology, by equipping the crew with voice communications on top or instead of the chat communications. One of the spokesmen in the article however adds that merely adding more technology may not be a solution for solving moral concerns in decision making on the battlefield:

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