from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

You Might Have Missed: Drone Strike Policies, North Korea, and Conflict Prevention

April 24, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Palestinian Territories

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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, White House, April 23, 2015.

John Earnest, White House Spokesperson:  I can tell you that Mr. Gadahn was not specifically targeted.  But in a fashion that was similar to the operation that we were discussing that resulted in the death of Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto, the operation was against an al Qaeda compound.  So again, this is a scenario where U.S. officials had determined with near certainty that an operation could be carried out against an al Qaeda compound that was frequented, or at least where at least one al Qaeda leader was locatedAnd that operation did result in the death of Mr. Gadahn…

What I would also readily admit to you is that in the aftermath of a situation like this, it raises legitimate questions about whether additional changes need to be made to those protocols.

Again, to put it more bluntly, we have national security professionals who diligently follow those protocols based on everything that we know so far.  They follow those protocols, and yet it still resulted in this unintended but very tragic consequence.  And that’s why the President has directed his team to conduct a review of this particular operation to see if there are lessons learned, reforms that we can implement to this process.

(3PA: This is the first time the White House has anthropomorphized a compound as being equal to an al-Qaeda leader. U.S. drone strike policy does not say that a “compound” can pose an imminent threat. Moreover, the tragic incident will result in a review of one counterterrorism operation in January 2015, but not of the thirteen-year drone program itself.)

Jeremy Scahill, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War,” The Intercept, April 17, 2015.

Amid fierce European criticism of America’s targeted killing program, U.S. and German government officials have long downplayed Ramstein’s role in lethal U.S. drone operations and have issued carefully phrased evasions when confronted with direct questions about the base. But the slides show that the facilities at Ramstein perform an essential function in lethal drone strikes conducted by the CIA and the U.S. military in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa…

“Ramstein carries the signal to tell the drone what to do and it returns the display of what the drone sees. Without Ramstein, drones could not function, at least not as they do now,” the source said.

The new evidence places German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an awkward position given Germany’s close diplomatic alliance with the United States. The German government has granted the U.S. the right to use the property, but only under the condition that the Americans do nothing there that violates German law.

U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea,” Senate Armed Services Committee, April 16, 2015.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC): The likelihood of an armed conflict between South Korea and North Korea, how would you evaluate that on 1 to 10 scale, 1 being very unlikely, 10 being highly likely. Say in the next 10 years, general?

Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander, UN Command/Combined Forces Command/U.S. Forces Korea: Well, sir, I caveat by saying I think that if K.J.U. [Kim Jong-Un] knows that if he were to conduct a conventional attack on South Korea it’d be the end. So I don’t think that’s his purpose. I think it’s to maintain his regime. But I think over a 10-year period it’s above a 5. It’s a 6 probably.

Military Cyber Programs and Posture,” Senate Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, April 14, 2015.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL): In your planning, do you plan to hit non-military targets?

Eric Rosenbach, principal cyber advisor to the secretary of defense: Sir, I can talk about more detail in a close session, but yes, but in a very, very precise and confined way, they would always adhere to the law of war and all of the things we think about for collateral damage and other targeting. And I’m sure, General McLaughlin can speak more to that and in particular in a classified environment.

Nelson: Such as if, for example, that you wanted to take out the enemy’s air defenses, you could go in and knock out power stations, the civilian stations.

Rosenbach: Sir, you know, I think talking in a classified environment would be better for specifics and then I can go into great detail about things like that.

Alon Ben-David, “Israel Learns About Close Air Support In Gaza,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 27, 2015.

The fiercest fighting occurred as Israel’s Golani infantry brigade approached the Shejaiya neighborhood, east of Gaza City, where Hamas ordered the Palestinian population to stay put. After 4 hr. of combat, the Israelis suffered 13 casualties. Most of the Golani senior command was either killed or wounded. Under heavy fire and unable to pull back, the brigade begged for heavy air support.

IAF [Israeli Air Force] commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel decided to act against all safety procedures and ordered the Golani forces to take cover in their armored vehicles. Then, the air force began dropping dozens of 2,000-lb. Joint Direct Attack Munitions on the building sheltering Palestinian combatants, within 100 meters of friendly forces. In 2 hr., Shejaiya absorbed more than 100 tons of explosives, which inflicted massive destruction on the neighborhood. Israeli forces were able to pull back and evacuate their casualties. Palestinians reported that 40 people, both combatants and civilians, were killed in the bombing.

The following day, the Golani brigade reentered Shejaiya to complete its mission. Word about the extremely close air support that the brigade received quickly spread to other brigades, which then asked the air force to provide them with the same support. The air force did that at several other locations, practically destroying the first few rows of buildings on the outskirts of Palestinian urban areas.

“Those days taught us that from now on, any ground maneuver into a dense urban area will have to be very closely supported from the air,” says an air force official, “and that the entry ticket into a serried [compact] urban area is 100‑200 tons of munitions.”

Stephen Watts, “Identifying and Mitigating Risks in Security Sector Assistance for Africa’s Fragile State,” RAND Corporation, 2015, p. 29.

DoD [Department of Defense] planners do not themselves, however, have formal processes designed to identify risks ahead of time and take steps to mitigate them. State Department personnel are highly sensitive to the potential political risks of such assistance, but they typically think about risk identification and mitigation in highly informal, intuitive ways—ways that at least some at the State Department contend are inadequate to the many challenges posed by SSA [security sector assistance]. Moreover, the State Department does not have adequate resources to oversee its current commitments, much less an expanded approach to risk identification and mitigation. Neither DoD nor the State Department, in other words, appears well positioned to identify and mitigate SSA risks.

(3PA: This paragraph, which is based upon interviews with Pentagon and State Department staffers, makes clear why the U.S. government is so unable to identify and prevent conflict.)

More on:

South Korea

Palestinian Territories

Conflict Prevention

Military Operations

Terrorism and Counterterrorism