21 May 2018


Bryan Hedrick


Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should—therein lies the ethical dilemma of war. Threats to our national security have exponentially increased; no longer can we depend on superiority across all domains of warfare. The situation is precarious; our adversaries are near-peer, peer, or even superior to our own capabilities. Technology has brought the fight to our own soil through cyber warfare, unmanned aircraft, long range delivery platforms, and artificial intelligence. Despite the vast changes in modern warfare, the human dimension of war still remains fixed—war has ethical limits. Multi-Domain Battle poses an intrinsic ethical dilemma to the warfighter’s ability to apply combat power congruent with the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello principles inherent within the Law of War. As strategies and tactics develop, it is imperative to consider the ethical ramifications of our actions. The Army’s Ethical Reasoning Framework is no longer a viable tool as it does not provide commanders nor soldiers the rigor or speed at which to make sound ethical decisions. We must engage the ethical domain—the trust of our nation and the moral health of our military hangs in the balance.

The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants…If we continue to develop technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.

-- General Omar N. Bradley

In 2016, cinemas around the world dramatized the ethical and moral dilemmas of the fiercely debated drone program in the movie Eye in the Sky, which illuminated the contention between warfare, technology, and human morality. [i] Essentially, a drone pilot executed a lethal strike in which a civilian girl became collateral damage. Throughout the movie, the issues of moral, ethical, and legal justification were at the nexus of the decision; the aftermath was a pilot in Nevada going home from his shift having just killed an eight-year-old girl across the globe in Africa. War is never simplistic; this movie demonstrates the ethical ramifications of a nation conducting a pre-emptive lethal strike against a non-state actor who had the propensity to inflict harm, and the moral injury to the pilot who pulled the trigger. Such is the future and danger of warfare envisioned in TRADOC’s Multi-Domain Battle concept (MDB).[ii]

MDB poses an intrinsic ethical dilemma to the warfighter’s ability to apply combat power congruent with the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello principles inherent within the Law of War (LoW). In light of this dilemma, the Army’s Ethical Reasoning Framework does not provide commanders, nor soldiers the rigor or speed at which to make sound ethical decisions in MDB.[iii] It is imperative the Army develop an ethical framework that is capable of mitigating ethical dilemmas within the MDB context and train units on its use, incorporating a realistic context and tempo. Finally, the Army Chaplaincy must become further engaged in the ethical formation of units and operational definitions must be updated to be relevant to the MDB’s non-linear, four-dimensional concept of warfare in order to mitigate risk of moral injury to MDB practitioners. 

According to the United Nations Charter VII, nations may only enter armed conflict with just cause.[iv] Two distinct principles emerge from this document. First is the principle of self-defense against aggressors.[v] Second, nations may enter into armed conflict as part of a collective self-defense in order to protect an ally or to prevent atrocities or human rights violations, in accordance with international law.[vi] Jus ad Bellum does not condone the use of military force to pursue national interests.[vii] Yet, the purpose of competition within MDB, “is to defend national interests without the large-scale violence that characterizes armed conflict.” Therefore, conducting targeted surgical strikes whether by drones, Special Operations Forces, or cyber-attacks presents an ethical and moral challenge to those prosecuting the attacks.

Second, a reasonable probability of success is essential to enter armed conflict. MDB defines success as a return to competition, not a disarmament of the enemy.[viii] It assumes the best possible outcome is a degraded enemy that still retains nuclear capability. In addition, the military must not push aggressors to the point in which their only option is to resort to weapons of mass destruction. It envisions soldiers who will experience horrors of war only to still have a capable enemy following conflict, without a sense of purpose, accomplishment, or moral justification in their actions.[ix] A study conducted in 2014 demonstrated a link between moral injury, reasonable success, and just cause stating moral injury, “may also be driven by losses…the loss of a compelling and life-changing purpose (i.e., as in the “Warrior Creed” or defending democratic values).”[x] Furthermore it advocated, “Clearly, the need for finding meaning is heightened in war where human empathy is limited, where orders to engage in firing upon others are followed, and where death and dying are not abstractions, but daily occurrences.”[xi] Without a just cause or reasonable probability of success, service members are placed at increased risk of moral injury. 

The final principle of Jus ad Bellum is proportionality. How is the use of bombs and bullets justified when national security is threatened by lines of code? The means used must be proportional to the desired ends. For example, a nation who has land invaded may justify entering armed conflict in order to reclaim the lost territory but cannot justify invading the aggressor’s lands or exacting further retribution.[xii] According to the MDB, a cyber-attack against our economic interests is an attack on our sovereignty, thus warranting lethal retaliation. While legal justification may protect such actions, moral and ethical justification are far more ambiguous.

Within MDB’s phase of armed conflict, how do the Jus in Bello principles of discrimination and proportionality apply? First, in terms of discrimination, several definitions are not adequate operational terms for conducting MDB. For example, the Geneva Convention I defines armed conflict as, “[a]ny difference arising between two States and leading to the intervention of armed forces is an armed conflict within the meaning of Article 2, even if one of the Parties denies the existence of a state of war.”[xiii] Note the disparity between MDB’s definition of competition, which is replete with armed forces intervention, and how the Geneva Convention defines this same action as armed conflict. Furthermore, the United States adheres to the definition of civilians in the U.N.’s Additional Protocol (AP) I and II, though it “contains a ‘negative definition’ of civilian, which ‘follows a process of elimination.’”[xiv] The reason it is considered negative is the term is designed to cover anyone not explicitly mentioned as a combatant, as opposed to a definitive category of persons. Even the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) acknowledges the “lack of clarity” within the future of conflict concerning civilians taking a direct part in hostilities, cyber operations, automated weapons systems, and targeting in non-international conflict.”[xv] Problematically, in the age of increased intelligence and cyber analytics, discrimination is quite challenging when an attack was conducted from geographically dispersed locations through lines of code.

Second in MDB the doctrine of double effect comes to the forefront of ethical considerations, which states that while non-combatants are not to be targeted directly, they may be targeted indirectly so long as casualties are minimized, or so long as the non-combatants are directly supporting the war effort, despite not being uniformed.[xvi] It was this justification that led the Allies to commit the atrocity of the Dresden bombing which claimed the lives of 25,000-500,000 civilians.[xvii] In the modern context, at what point does a civilian become a combatant or fit into this category? How are civilians working in intelligence, communications, or private industry viewed in terms of combatant status?

Furthermore, the LoW limits commanders’ actions by disallowing indiscriminate attacks in which civilians cannot be readily identified or casualties mitigated.[xviii] What metrics or guidance is given to commanders that allows them to make this determination cross domains, in rapid time and limited space? Additionally, the complex future of military operations obscures the ability to determine second and third orders of effect from military actions and requires non-linear, three and four-dimension critical thinking/operational design, enhancing the need for an ethical framework that is tailored to this context. MDB exponentially increases the uncertainty and requires commanders and soldiers alike to make rapid decisions to exploit fleeting windows of advantage in which the ethical and moral issues abound. 

The principle of proportionality demands the question of how do we provide a measured, kinetic response to an enemy action conducted in the abstract cyber domain? The nature of the Multi-Domain Battle is a cross of the abstract and physical domains of war to leverage multiple dilemmas against the enemy in order to overwhelm their capabilities. This is a logical tactic; however, the devil is in the details. The LoW defines proportionality as, “the principle that even where one is justified in acting, one must not act in a way that is unreasonable or excessive.”[xix]What ethical paradigm assists commanders in determining whether a cyber or kinetic response is indeed proportionate?

The danger of moral injury is on par, if not higher, with the addition of abstract domains, artificial intelligence, and drone platforms in future conflict.[xx] Unlike conventional forces who deploy and conduct operations in time/space abroad, cyber, drone, and intelligence operations are often occurring from a base in the continental United States where there is no buffer between the harsh realities of combat and the normal challenges and pleasantries of life at home. These professionals end their shifts and return to being parents and spouses, literally taking kids to soccer practice twenty minutes after being an integral part of killing a known terrorist, or watching an innocent person beheaded.[xxi] Under the bond of extreme secrecy, these intelligence and cyber warriors cannot discuss this tension with those family members and must compartmentalize such horrors without the buffer of the time and distance afforded to troops physically deployed overseas.

In light of these ethical dilemmas I make the following recommendations. First, it is imperative to redesign Army’s Ethical Reasoning Framework to incorporate the ambiguity, tempo, lethality, and tenacity of the Multi-Domain Battle. The framework, with its eight-step process, is cumbersome and requires significant training to be effective. If the framework to be a usable tool, it must be redesigned, streamlined, and most importantly, trained in the operational domain. With limited windows of advantage and the need to exploit opportunities rapidly, ethical decision-making must become efficient to be effective. Train on this concept and validate units at the combat training centers on their ability to navigate challenging ethical dilemmas as they relate to multi-domain employment of combat effects. Finally, establish a Lessons Learned program for commanders to assist in developing efficiency and effectiveness in this capability.

Second, it is critical to review current definitions update as necessary. As discussed above, the definitions of civilians and armed conflict are vague at best. MDB’s use of the terms armed conflict and competition is problematic in contrast with LoW’s definition. Civilian requires a more comprehensive and deliberate definition to reduce ambiguity and enable better tactical discrimination. Furthermore, the doctrine of double effect is poorly described leaving operational gaps in application and moral injury in execution. For example, how are civilians working in the intelligent community, private industry, or development viewed in terms of combatant status? Finally, what are the guidelines and authorities for targeting between the virtual, cognitive, and physical domains? These questions require answers to ethically conduct MDB.

Third, it is critical to develop the ethical character of the force. MDB is built on the premise that the military can be trusted to do what is ethically and morally right in the face of adversity, ambiguity, and with limited oversight. This trust extends to each individual soldier and involves significant risk for commanders and our national security. MDB hinges on precise actions within precise windows of advantage, all while not inflicting enough damage as to threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction. It emphasizes efficiency and effectiveness, perhaps at the expense of the ethical. Tactical actions have strategic importance and trust in small, semi-autonomous units must be validated through the development of ethical character throughout the force. Additionally, ethical training needs enhanced within the institutional domain. Currently, there is a significant lack of education on ethical reasoning in both the Non-Commissioned Officer and Officer Education Systems.

Finally, the U.S. Army Chaplaincy must become more engaged as the ethical advisor to commander by integrating ethical considerations into the training and operations of thier units. Unit Ministry Teams are tasked in AR 165-1 to provide ethical advisement to their units,[xxii] yet are chaplains and religious affairs specialists trained and equipped in the operational domain to provide this capability? Currently this training resides solely in the institutional domain, with no operational domain tasks to support ethical advisement. I recommend the chaplain task analysts examine and develop tasks that effectively enable training on ethical advisement within operational domain, which are then validated during unit rotations at combat training centers. Additionally, chaplains and religious affairs specialists are equipped to train units on moral leadership training. This is a critical training tool at a commander’s disposal to utilize in the development of character.

In conclusion, there is an ethical disparity between the Multi-Domain Battle and the warfighter’s ability to conduct land combat in accordance with the Law of War. As new technologies continue to develop, the ethical considerations and guidelines must be constantly revised and implemented. The welfare of our nation and its military members is at stake. Just because we can do something, does not mean we should. It is not the military might of the United States that makes this nation great; it is the ability to wield such power in an ethical manner which truly defines the spirit of America.

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