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Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC)

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Targeting Personnel. The LOAC protects civilian populations. Military attacks against cities, towns, or villages not justified by military necessity are forbidden. Attacking noncombatants (generally referred to as civilians) for the sole purpose of terrorizing them is also prohibited. Although civilians may not be made the object of a direct attack, the LOAC recognizes that a military target need not be spared because its destruction may cause collateral damage that results in the unintended death or injury to civilians or damage to their property. Commanders and their planners must take into consideration the extent of unintended indirect civilian destruction and probable casualties that will result from a direct attack on a military objective and, to the extent consistent with military necessity, seek to avoid or minimize civilian casualties and destruction. Anticipated civilian losses must be proportionate to the military advantages sought. Judge advocate, intelligence, and operations personnel play a critical role in determining the propriety of a target and the choice of weapon to be used under the particular circumstances known to the commander when planning an attack.

Targeting Objects. The LOAC specifically describes objects that shall not be the targets of a direct attack. Reflecting the rule that military operations must be directed at military objectives, objects normally dedicated to peaceful purposes enjoy a general immunity from direct attack. Specific protection applies to medical units or establishments; transports of wounded and sick personnel; military and civilian hospital ships; safety zones established under the Geneva Conventions; and religious, cultural, and charitable buildings, monuments, and POW camps. However, if these objects are used for military purposes, they lose their immunity. If these protected objects are located near lawful military objectives (which LOAC prohibits), they may suffer collateral damage when the nearby military objectives are lawfully engaged.

Aircraft and Combat

Enemy Military Aircraft and Aircrew. Enemy military aircraft may be attacked and destroyed wherever found, unless in neutral airspace. An attack on enemy military aircraft must be discontinued if the aircraft is clearly disabled and has lost its means of combat. Airmen who parachute from a disabled aircraft and offer no resistance may not be attacked. Airmen who resist in descent or are downed behind their own lines and who continue to fight may be subject to attack. The rules of engagement (ROE) for a particular operation often provide additional guidance consistent with LOAC obligations for attacking enemy aircraft.

Enemy Civilian Aircraft. An enemy’s public and private nonmilitary aircraft are generally not subject to attack because the LOAC protects noncombatants from direct attack. Since WWII, nations have increasingly recognized the necessity to avoid attacking civil aircraft. Under exceptional conditions, however, civil aircraft may be lawfully attacked. If the civil aircraft initiates an attack, it may be considered an immediate military threat and attacked. An immediate military threat justifying an attack may also exist when reasonable suspicion exists of a hostile intent, as when such aircraft approaches a military base at high speed or enters enemy territory without permission and disregards signals or warnings to land or proceed to a designated place.

Enemy Military Medical Aircraft. Enemy military medical aircraft is generally not subject to attack under the LOAC. However, at least six instances may lead to a lawful attack. Enemy military medical aircraft could be lawfully attacked and destroyed if it:

  • Initiates an attack.
  • Is not exclusively employed as a medical aircraft.
  • Does not bear a clearly marked Red Cross, Red Crescent, or other recognized symbol and is not otherwise known to be an exclusively medical aircraft.
  • Does not fly at heights, at times, and on routes specifically agreed to by the parties to the conflict and is not otherwise known to be an exclusively medical aircraft.
  • Flies over enemy territory or enemy-occupied territory (unless otherwise agreed upon by the parties).
  • Approaches its enemy’s territory or a combat zone and disregards a summons to land.
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