The U.S. Army is adopting new thinking to protect troops in Iraq and Afghanistan against insurgents. U.S. forces often operate from large, fortified bases, which keep them at a distance from the population they’re supposed to protect, making it difficult to develop the trust that’s needed to win hearts and minds.

Just recently the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus pointed out that the focus must be protection of the local population. This new emphasis on counterinsurgency has prompted something of a rethink, with more units moving to small combat outposts in populated areas. New guidelines explicitly encourage soldiers to get out of their armoured vehicles, do more patrolling on foot and interact with the population.

While in some respects this seems more dangerous, it is essential for collecting intelligence. U.S. Army Colonel Steven Mains, director of the Center for Army Lessons Learned, told Jane’s that that the emphasis on maintaining a protective “bubble” around convoys can, at times, be self-defeating. The new guidelines, he said, were “not just a moral imperative, but good, sound counterinsurgency practice.”

Perhaps the biggest shift within the U.S. military has been recognition of the need to reduce civilian casualties during combat operations – particularly around roadblocks and traffic control points, which are prime targets for suicide car bombers. With soldiers having only seconds to decide whether to shoot or not, civilians can be killed if they don’t follow instructions or make an unexpected move.

In an effort to improve checkpoint procedures, the Army has published an ‘Escalation of Force’ (EoF) handbook, offering guidance on operating traffic control points and a DVD with training scenarios. The handbook also features a civilian perspective, contributed by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), an NGO that advocates on behalf of civilians in war zones.

The new force protection guidelines may also speed investment in equipment, particularly non-lethal munitions. There has already been a surge in orders for crew-protection kits that provided ballistic protection on heavy-duty construction vehicles. And the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has created an EoF “mix and match” toolkit which may include signs in English or Arabic, yellow cones, a non-blinding laser, spike strips, spotlights and a loudspeaker.

Whether the new thinking will survive contact with reality is a different matter. For the years to come, the issues of force protection promise to test the boundaries of law, counterinsurgency practice and new technology.

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The U.S. Army is adopting new thinking to protect troops in Iraq and Afghanistan…