If someone uses the phrase Rules of Engagement, most people might think of the David Spade sitcom that ran from 2007 to 2013. It’s kind of an unfortunate coincidence – because the term also covers something that matters to every one of our troops on the front lines, and many who support them.
According to Field Manual 1-02, “Operational Terms and Graphics,” rules of engagement, or ROEs, are defined as “Directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.”
To turn that into plain English, it means that ROEs determine when and how our troops can go about actually killing the bad guys and wrecking their stuff. Permissive, or “loose,” ROEs give the troops a lot of latitude in how to react to a potentially hostile act during peacetime, or with enemy forces during a time of war. Restrictive, or “tight,” ROEs tend to leave the troops with fewer options in those situations.
Often, restrictive ROEs are put in place to either avoid sparking a major conflict or to minimize/eliminate the risk of civilian casualties and/or collateral damage. While those are laudable objectives, ROEs that are too restrictive (or “tight”), they can place American troops at risk. For instance, “tight” ROEs could dictate that troops must stand guard with unloaded weapons. Such was the case in 1983, when a truck bomb hit the Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. More recently, “tight” ROEs are manifesting themselves by reports that 75% of sorties against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) result in bombs not being dropped.
Tight rules of engagement have come under criticism since then, especially in the wake of the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula and the attacks in Paris. France used a dozen planes to drop 20 bombs, while Russia sent two dozen bombers. Russia even gave the Tu-160 Blackjack its baptism by fire.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has said that the United States has changed the ROEs to allow targeting convoys of fuel trucks. In one instance, A-10 Thunderbolts and AC-130 Specter gunships destroyed over a hundred fuel trucks in one such convoy.
“Tight” ROEs pose more than one threat to American troops. Look at the case of First Lieutenant Clint Lorance. In a 2012 incident, Lorance ordered the troops under his command to engage a pair suspected Taliban. The men were killed, but turned out to be unarmed, albeit evidence exists that they were involved in manufacturing improvised explosive devices. Lorance was accused of violating the ROEs, and convicted of murder, and is currently serving a 19-year sentence at Leavenworth.
American forces have faced tighter ROEs. Partially this is due to the fact that precision-guided weapons have become much more common. We don’t need to send four A-6s to drop a few dozen Mk83 1,000-pound bombs to score one hit. Today, a F/A-18E Super Hornet can just drop one GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) to score that hit, and then fly on to the next target. The problem is that not all combat situations can be resolved so cleanly, and even Hellfire missiles, or JDAMs can cause collateral damage or civilian casualties.
When American planes are not dropping their bombs 75% of the time, it’s reasonable to question whether the ROEs are too tight. You might ask why this might matter. Think of it this way: The terrorists who we didn’t drop bombs on this past spring or summer may already be on their way here.