Rules of engagement: Train the way you fight

Airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Wing's Security Forces Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., work to input developing intel in regards to simulated threats during Exercise Turbo Distribution 18-02 Sept. 8, 2018, at Fort McCoy, Wis. The exercise helped to hone the Airmen's core port-opening competencies as well as provide upgrade training for the majority of the participating Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christian Conrad)

Airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Wing's Security Forces Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., work to input developing intel in regards to simulated threats during Exercise Turbo Distribution 18-02 Sept. 8, 2018, at Fort McCoy, Wis. The exercise helped to hone the Airmen's core port-opening competencies as well as provide upgrade training for the majority of the participating Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christian Conrad)

FORT MCCOY, Wis. – When you think of a security forces Airman, you’re likely thinking of someone who looks a lot like Master Sgt. Vincent Brasher, flight chief of the 921st Contingency Response Squadron. Solidly built at about 6 feet 2 inches he’s not a man that scares easily. But he says some stories get pretty close.

“When you hear about how a convoy got hit by an (improvised explosive device) or how a motorcycle was used in a suicide bombing that killed seven kids who were just trying to get to school, it’s not really something you just shrug off,” he said. “It contributes to this very real culture of anxiety and suspicion that exists out in theater.”

As a security forces Airman who served tours in Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2012, Brasher has seen both wartime and relative peace in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.

“Peace,” he cautions, still wasn’t “safe” in 2012.

“In 2006, we were getting attacked every day, so I can see how in relation to that, 2012 could be seen by some people as ‘peaceful,’” he said. “But we were still under threat and attacks were still happening at that time, though not with the same frequency.”

In 2009, in response to what was deemed by then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal as too many civilian casualties resulting from American counter-insurgency operations, the rules of engagement governing how, when and to what capacity military members were authorized to engage with potential hostiles, was changed.

The effects of this change was felt throughout the broader international community including by the United Nations, which reported that in 2012, the United States killed 126 Afghan civilians by airstrike, contrasting with 550 Afghan civilians in 2008.

In 2015, then-U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman III underlined the importance of reducing civilian casualties by describing the effort as being “the right thing to do” and “one of the things that separates us from the terrorists we're fighting, who kill anyone who isn't them.”

Despite the global praise of the new rules of engagement, security forces personnel in Afghanistan were forced to reconcile a new, self-defensive stance in what was still a dangerous environment.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking,” said Brasher. “Our specific ROE at that time relied on there being specific factors at play before we’d be authorized to use force.”

According to Capt. Christian Acevedo, 621st Contingency Response Wing legal adviser, those factors essentially boil down to capability and intent.

“Say, for instance, there’s a local shouting threats at a security forces officer,” he said. “They may very well have the intent to do them harm, but if they’re unarmed, they don’t have the capability to do so. Proportionality is also an important factor in also determining how to respond. For example, shooting someone may be seen as violating the ROE if the person you’re shooting is attacking you with, say, pebbles.”

Acevedo went on to say how ROEs differ depending on the type of operation and the discretion of the combatant commander.

Humanitarian operations, for example, will likely have a radically different ROE than one authorized to a unit deployed to a hostile environment, he said.

“Despite whatever potential differences in ROEs, though, the overarching law of the land is the Law of Armed Conflict,” he said. “No matter how rough an environment can get, we can’t violate LOAC—that’s international law. It’s definitely something worth brushing up on for any U.S. military member who doesn’t enjoy the idea of landing themselves in some scalding hot water.”

For Brasher, ROEs represent valuable guidance in austere locations, a common destination for his position in the 921st CRS.

“Something I always stay cognizant of and look up before being sent somewhere is what the ROE for that location and that mission is,” he said. “It’s a habit I try to instill in my Airmen as well.”

To those who call ROEs too restrictive, Brasher has two words: “Be better.”

“It comes down to training,” he said. “If you don’t train the way you fight, of course you’ll be rusty and panic when you think someone is pulling out a weapon. That’s why we drill different ROEs over and over and over again until the ROEs themselves become instinct. It becomes a strength - not a weakness.”

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