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Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)

The Rules of War


LOAC Defined

The LOAC arises from a desire among civilized nations to prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction while not impeding the effective waging of war. A part of public international law, LOAC regulates the conduct of armed hostilities. It also aims to protect civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked. LOAC applies to international armed conflicts and in the conduct of military operations and related activities in armed conflict, however such conflicts are characterized.

LOAC Policy

DoDD 5100.77, DoD Law of War Program, requires each military department to design a program that ensures LOAC observance, prevents LOAC violations, ensures prompt reporting of alleged LOAC violations, appropriately trains all forces in LOAC, and completes a legal review of new weapons. Although some of the services often refer to LOAC as the law of war (LOW), within this this article LOAC and LOW are the same. LOAC training is a treaty obligation of the United States under provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The training should be of a general nature; however, certain groups such as aircrews, special forces, special operations, infantry, medical personnel, and security forces, etc., receive additional, specialized training that addresses the unique issues they may encounter.

International and Domestic Law

LOAC comes from both customary international law and treaties. Customary international law, based on practice that nations have come to accept as legally required, establishes the traditional rules that govern the conduct of military operations in armed conflict. Article VI of the US Constitution states that treaty obligations of the United States are the “supreme law of the land,” and the US Supreme Court has held that international law, to include custom, are part of US law. This means that treaties and agreements the United States enters into enjoy equal status as laws passed by Congress and signed by the President. Therefore, all persons subject to US law must observe the United States’ LOAC obligations. In particular, military personnel must consider LOAC to plan and execute operations and must obey LOAC in combat. Those who violate LOAC may be held criminally liable for war crimes and court-martialed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).


Three important LOAC principles govern armed conflict—military necessity, distinction, and proportionality.

Military Necessity. Military necessity requires combat forces to engage in only those acts necessary to accomplish a legitimate military objective. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In applying military necessity to targeting, the rule generally means the United States Military may target those facilities, equipment, and forces which, if destroyed, would lead as quickly as possible to the enemy’s partial or complete submission.

As an example of compliance with the principle of military necessity during Operation Desert Storm, consider our targeting and destruction of Iraqi SCUD missile batteries and of Iraqi army and air forces. These actions quickly achieved air superiority and hastened the Iraqi military’s defeat.

Military necessity also applies to weapons review. AFI 51-402, Weapons Review, requires the Air Force to perform a legal review of all weapons and weapons systems intended to meet a military requirement. These reviews ensure the United States complies with its international obligations, especially those relating to the LOAC, and it helps military planners ensure military personnel do not use weapons or weapons systems that violate international law. Illegal arms for combat include poison weapons and expanding hollow point bullets in armed conflict. Even lawful weapons may require some restrictions on their use in particular circumstances to increase compliance with the LOAC.

Distinction. Distinction means discriminating between lawful combatant targets and noncombatant targets such as civilians, civilian property, POWs, and wounded personnel who are out of combat. The central idea of distinction is to only engage valid military targets. An indiscriminate attack is one that strikes military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. Distinction requires defenders to separate military objects from civilian objects to the maximum extent feasible. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to locate a hospital or POW camp next to an ammunition factory.

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