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Lawyers provide operational advice to CAOC commanders

  • Published
  • By Maj. David Kurle
  • U.S. AFCENT Public Affairs
When battle directors at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center here make life and death decisions affecting battles hundreds of miles away in Afghanistan and Iraq, expert advice comes in handy - especially when it's from a lawyer.

Legal advisors - or LEGADs as they are known in the CAOC - are part of a team of experts who provide as much information as possible to commanders so decisions can be based on the latest intelligence, desired effects, available aircraft and legal data.

The LEGADs are standard issue at what serves as the headquarters for Coalition airpower and the deployed home of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

"There is a rigor - or discipline - to the process that requires a whole bunch of folks in different disciplines to coordinate and approve a target before a bomb is dropped," said Col. James Bitzes, chief legal advisor to senior leaders here. "My role, as part of that team, is to advise the commander on all legal aspects of the execution of the ATO (air-tasking order) and the prosecution of targets."

Just like preparing a court case against a defendant, the "prosecution" of a potential target is a process of investigation, research, exploration of possibilities, consultations with experts and predicting possible consequences.

Unlike the courtroom, target prosecutions must be completed in a matter of minutes because in combat, every second counts.

"It's the commander's responsibility to understand rules of engagement, national policies and law," said Col. Keith McBride, deputy CAOC director. "But, it's the legal advisor's role to be an expert in these areas and advise how those rules and laws apply to a tactical situation."

Officers at the CAOC refer to unplanned air operations in the heat of battle as "dynamic targeting."

"Just because it's happening dynamically, doesn't mean we cut procedures short," Colonel Bitzes said. "Everyone who needs to be is focused on that one event to make sure it's done right in that space and time."

Besides ensuring legal thresholds are met during airpower planning and dynamic targeting, LEGADs provide ground forces and aircrews with guidance to make informed decisions on and above the battlefield.

"The lawyers help commanders disseminate policy and guidance concerning the legalities of operational warfare in a way warfighters understand," Colonel McBride said.

"Our operational lawyers help us translate policies, rules of engagement and law into operationally-understood command guidance and we hold ourselves accountable to that."

Specifically, Colonel Bitzes and his team work with joint terminal attack controllers - or JTACs - specially-trained Airmen, who direct airpower for ground forces; as well as aircrews operating strike aircraft.

"It's more than just waiting for a call to come in that says, 'we want to strike a target'," he said. "We also provide training products so aircrews and (joint terminal attack controllers) are prepared to operate rapidly and more confidently."

The colonel leads a team of four commissioned officers, all Air Force staff judge advocates - or JAGs - at least one of whom is stationed on the CAOC's operations floor at all times.

Colonel Bitzes is "on call" 24-hours a day.

"It's really important to be available whenever I'm needed," he said. "My down time is always subject to being interrupted but I'm glad folks keep me busy."

Colonel Bitzes has 19 years of legal experience in the military and prior experience as a civilian attorney.

"I remember reading the (American Bar Association) Journal in 1991 and in that article I remember reading about JAGs doing this same job for Operation Desert Storm," he said. "I can honestly say that back then, I wanted to serve at the CAOC one day if our nation was ever involved in conflict again."

While legal advisors have been a part of the air-combat decision-making process as far back as World War II, never in history has so much battlefield information been available to commanders - even when they are hundreds of miles away - thanks in part to live video feeds of the tactical situation.

Modern reconnaissance technology, such as remotely-piloted aircraft, helps cut through the "fog of war," according to Lt. Col. Charles Musselman, one of three "floor JAGs" who provide information to battle directors.

However, he said, while technology improves "situational awareness," it also speeds up the decision-making process.

"We're not here to throw up road blocks," Colonel Musselman said. "We're here to help the decision makers use the tools in their toolbox."

The team of experts works simultaneously to provide information, quickly, to the battle directors, according to Maj. Brian Bengs, another floor JAG.

"We ask the question: 'Is the ground commander's intent being carried out and are the rules (of war) being followed'?" he said.

All of the "operational" Air Force lawyers at the CAOC receive weeks of advanced training before they deploy, according to Colonel Musselman and Major Bengs. In addition to at least a week's overlap with their predecessors, LEGADs take a four-week Air Operators Course then spend time training at USAFCENT's stateside headquarters in South Carolina.

In addition to pre-deployment training, CAOC senior leaders participate in exercises designed to keep battle directors and their team of experts sharp.

"In every exercise there are usually rules of engagement or law of armed conflict considerations," Colonel Musselman said. "I think it's a great opportunity to step out of the typical world most JAGs know and become totally immersed into the operational world."

The common thread between the two worlds is the lawyers' role as advisors to commanders who take on the responsibilities of making the ultimate decision.

The complex environment presented on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq make it even more important that U.S. and Coalition forces pay attention to the law of armed conflict and hold themselves to a higher standard, according to Colonel Bitzes.

"War, by its nature, is a complicated environment to begin with," he said. "But war against an enemy who does not respect the most basic LOAC regimes is even more complex."

Colonel Bitzes cited the enemy's penchant for using civilians as human-shields and the use of indiscriminate weapons, such as improvised explosive devices - which routinely kill civilians - as examples of LOAC violations.

"We respect the law of war - the enemy does not," he said. "We care about the civilians we're here to protect - the enemy does not."

"When the American military shows up, there are expectations that there is adherence to the laws of war," Colonel McBride said. "If we slip from that, we lose our identity.

"We have to maintain our high moral and ethical standards and hold ourselves accountable for any deviations," he said.

Colonels McBride and Bitzes agree that members of the U.S. military have a desire to carry out their duties, as difficult as they may be, in a fashion that is honorable and follows the laws of war.

"I have a fundamental belief that Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines want to do the right thing and be lawful," Colonel Bitzes said. "Hopefully, they have the confidence that what they are doing has been legally vetted and they're confident at the point of execution that they're doing the right thing."