The Human Dimension in Force Projection: Discipline under Fire

By Kirkland, Faris R; Ender, Morten G et al. | Military Review, March/April 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Human Dimension in Force Projection: Discipline under Fire


Kirkland, Faris R, Ender, Morten G, Gifford, Robert K, Wright, Kathleen M, Marlowe, David H, Military Review


ALTHOUGH MOST SOLDIERS and junior leaders involved in Operation Just Cause, the 1989 US invasion of Panama, saw combat for the first time during that operation, they behaved like veterans. This is the payoff from two decades of mutually supportive innovations in training, leadership and manning that have altered the US Army's human dimension.l Applied differently in the 20 infantry battalions committed to Just Cause, these innovations provided realistic training that provided the Army with soldiers who had confidence they could accomplish their missions; leaders who fostered a sense of responsibility and readiness to go to war; and soldiers and leaders who trusted one another and could work together under stress. The battalions successfully went from peace to war overnight and, from the outset, waged war with a skillful mix of violence and restraint. These attributes make the US Army a force that is well prepared for rapid projection into unpredictable situations that require sensitivity to the postwar responses of indigenous populations.

The Department of Military Psychiatry, Division of Neuropsychiatry, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), has been studying the human dimension evolution in the Army since 1980.2 A WRAIR team conducted a systematic debriefing of the soldiers who did the fighting in Just Cause.3 The words and actions reported here represent the responses from those interviews. By comparing them with historical studies, the reader can derive an assessment of the force's operational efficiency.4 This article will discuss three aspects of that efficiency: acceptance and implementation of restrictive rules of engagement (ROE), competent performance by battle-naive personnel and junior personnel acceptance of responsibility for and adapting to unfamiliar and rapidly changing missions.

Just Cause was a series of small, violent infantry actions conducted within a policy of restraint to minimize friendly and enemy casualties. Within 48 hours, the initial assault force of about 7,000 overwhelmed the forewarned Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF a military establishment numbering 7,400 supported by about 1,800 in paramilitary "dignity battalions."5 US forces accomplished their missions with few casualties among friendly personnel and Panamanians.6 Most analysts describe the assault forces and the 13,000 soldiers in follow-up operations as using firepower sparingly and behaving with competence, restraint and compassion.7 It is worth reflecting on what the soldiers in Just Cause did and how they did it-we are likely to need those capabilities again.

Rules of Engagement

Preventing Panamanian death and injury and property and infrastructure damage were crucial to Operation Just Cause's political and psychological success. The ROE-designed to protect Panamanians-increased the infantrymen's vulnerability by sharply limiting the use of fire-support systems. No indirect fire by mortars or artillery was allowed and howitzers were only used in direct fire with delayfuzed shells that burst inside buildings.8 Panamanian armored vehicles, antiaircraft weapons and machineguns were taken out by single shots, missiles or bursts of fire from AC-130 gunships and helicopters.9 Firepower was often demonstrated rather than applied. Only two aerial bombs were used. They were dropped by F-117As on the remote and isolated PDF base at Rio Hato with offsets to prevent casualties among enemy troops. 10 At Fort Amador, a howitzer was fired into an unoccupied building next to those held by the PDF 5th Rifle Company.ll This was done to induce PDF soldiers to surrender without bloodshed or damage to the infrastructure or private property.

ROE limited use of infantry weapons also. In the initial stages of combat, the "[R]ules of engagement prevented soldiers from firing unless they were certain that the shot would kill the enemy."12 The ROE prohibited suppressive fires on likely enemy positions. Rather than achieve fire superiority early as they had been trained to do, US soldiers had to let the enemy have the first shot.

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