Air Power, Coercion, and Dual-Use Infrastructure: A Legal and Ethical Analysis

As long as strategists see the potential for deriving military gain from civilian suffering, however attenuated, the goal of protecting civilians from the effects of war will be forced to compete with the perceived requirements of military effectiveness. —Ward Thomas, The Ethics of Destruction

Since its emergence in the early twentieth century, air power has played a major role in military campaigns. Its greatest advantage stems from the fact that it allows armed forces to covertly attack an enemy from a distance while minimizing the risk of taking casualties. Air power has traditionally been used to destroy an enemy’s war-making capacity through attacks on military objects. It is, however, equally suited to a more coercive application. Coercive bombing focuses on affecting the enemy’s will by expanding the scope of targets to include objects that are necessary to the survival of the targeted state’s political regime, forcing the state to rebalance its cost-benefit analysis of remaining party to a conflict.

As illustrated by political scientist and ethics scholar Ward Thomas in his comprehensive review of coercive or “duress” bombing, the coercive bombing strategy is not new. For example, in 1942, Italian war strategist Giulio Douhet championed the use of aerial attacks to affect civilian morale, stating that in the long-run, more civilian lives could be saved through a coercive approach to warfare. Douhet posited that the shocking nature of aerial attacks on civilian populations would generate a popular revolt by the target population. Domestic outcry would subsequently force the target government to yield to the attackers’ demands in order to prevent further bombing. This strategy arguably eliminates prolonged conflicts by weakening the enemy government’s political strength, thus hastening victory for the attacker and returning peace to the local population.

International aversion to the carnage of World War II, however, led to the normative judgment that civilians were not appropriate targets in warfare. Thus, in 1977, a prohibition on direct targeting of civilians was adopted into treaty law through the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977 (Additional Protocol I from hereon). Through the adoption of this treaty, significant political costs were associated with making civilians the objects of aerial attacks.

Nevertheless, the coercive strategy, though different from its early twentieth century predecessor, persists in military doctrine shielded by the concept of dual-use infrastructure (any object that serves both military and civilian purposes). As argued by Thomas, modern advancements in military technology have created an ethical paradox with regard to attacks on civilian objects. Technological improvements now allow air campaigns to be more precise, thus reducing the risk of civilian casualties in aerial attacks. However, these same advances lend support to a growing trend toward targeting dual-use infrastructure in order to undermine popular support for the targeted state’s war effort. Such a strategy, however, raises important legal and ethical questions.

Taking into account definitions of legitimate military targets, this paper considers whether a strategic approach to bombing is legal and ethical. The law regulating coercive bombing is ambiguous. The next section demonstrates that, while International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prohibits intentional attacks on civilian infrastructure, it does not necessarily prohibit attacks on dual-use infrastructure, so long as the attack meets the conditions of necessity and proportionality. This exception to the prohibition on civilian targeting results in a legal gray-area where specific cases of coercive bombing can be considered legitimate. Furthermore, the ethical implications of strategic bombing are also ambiguous, and strong arguments exist both in favor and in opposition to coercive strategies. The ethical question is therefore explored further through an analysis of NATO’s bombing campaign in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Based on the findings, this paper concludes that in instances of humanitarian intervention coercive military strategies require reworking. Targeting civilian morale contradicts the very purpose for such an invasion, namely, protection of civilians. Advancing the course of war through strategic targeting often comes at a significant cost to the local civilian population of the target state.

International Humanitarian Law, Civilian Targeting, and Coercive Bombing

International Humanitarian Law (jus in bello) governs the use of force in international conflict. The purpose of IHL is to regulate the conduct of, and relationships between, parties to a conflict (belligerents) and neutral states. IHL enshrines certain protections on combatants and non-combatants affected by armed conflicts. While IHL is defined in both the Hague and the Geneva Conventions, it is the Geneva Conventions that specifically out-line protections for civilians and other non-combatants in times of war.

The document which is of greatest relevance to this argument is the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Convention. The purpose of this Protocol is to “reaffirm and develop the provisions protecting the victims of armed conflicts and to supplement measures intended to reinforce their application.” Article 48 codifies the principle of distinction, defining an obligation for the parties to a conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants and between civilian and military objects. The article states that belligerents may only direct attacks against military objectives. Article 51, meanwhile, defines a general protection for the civilian population against the effects of warfare, including a prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and acts or threats of violence for which the primary purpose is to terrorize the civilian population. Finally, Article 52 defines the general protection of civilian objects. Civilian objects are all objects that are not military objects. The Protocol defines military objects in Article 52(2) as, “limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose, or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.” While there are 167 states parties to the protocol, notable exceptions include the United States, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. Customary law further supports the definition provided in Additional Protocol I Article 52(2), through numerous examples of state practice and opinio juris, making the prohibition applicable to all states.

Article 51 of Additional Protocol I explicitly prohibits targeting objects with the intention of increasing the duress of the civilian population. A broad interpretation of the Article 52(2) definition of a military object, however, can be used to justify coercive bombing so long as the duress experienced by civilians is a secondary consequence to the destruction or neutralization of a military object. As stated by legal scholar Matthew Waxman, “planners sometimes view the dual-use nature of infrastructure systems opportunistically, because military usage arguably legitimizes these systems as targets, even though it may in fact be the incidental effects on the civilian population that planners hope to manipulate.” This legal gray-area surrounding dual-use infrastructure is therefore the topic of the following discussion.

Dual-Use Infrastructure: What Is a Legitimate Military Objective?

Dual-use infrastructure includes any object that serves both military and civilian purposes. If a civilian object makes an effective contribution to military action, and its destruction offers a definite military advantage, then it may be a legitimate target regardless of its civilian use. This one exception to the prohibition on targeting civilian infrastructure creates legal space for modern military doctrine to maintain the strategy of coercive bombing.

There are, however, limitations on targeting dual-use infra-structure. The use of the terms “effective” and “definite” in the Additional Protocol I definition, as well as the customary law requirement of necessity, limit the scope of the definition of a military object. For example, Article 52(2) of Additional Protocol I can-not be used to justify the destruction of an object that only has the potential to become a military objective at some point in time; its destruction must be necessary at the time of the attack. If this were not the case, the principle of distinction would become void, as every civilian object could conceivably become a military object at some point in the future.

The condition of proportionality, enshrined in both customary law and Additional Protocol I Article 51(5b) represents an additional restriction on the definition of a military object. An attack on a legitimate military object may be illegitimate if the expected collateral damage to civilians or civilian infrastructure is greater than the direct military advantage anticipated. Proportionality will undoubtedly be a concern when an attacker targets any urban object, as the risk of civilian collateral damage is likely to be significantly higher in a densely populated city. Additional Protocol I does not completely prohibit dual-use infrastructural targeting because, in many instances, there is a good military reason for such targeting, and when applied in good faith, the application of Article 52(2) to dual-use infrastructure is not controversial. The adoption of this exception into strategic military doctrine, however, generates significant ethical concerns with respect to the hardships faced by the civilian population as a result of attacks on dual-use infrastructure. These concerns, further discussed below, focus on whether coercive dual-use targeting is beneficial or detrimental to the population in both the short- and long-term.

The Ethical Argument in Favor of Coercive Bombing

Ward Thomas offers a thorough overview of the evolution of ethical arguments both in support of and in opposition to coercive bombing. The recent resurgence of an ethical argument in favor of the coercive approach emerged from the writings of U.S. Air Force Colonel John Warden III. In 1995, Warden published a seminal piece on military strategy in which he argued that military thinking, which until that point had been primarily inductive, needed to become strategic, or deductive. Inductive thinking, for example, would focus on destroying the enemy army’s tanks. Deductive thinking, in contrast, would focus on destroying the enemy’s capacity to manufacture tanks. While destroying the state’s ability to fight by eliminating military targets will eventually bring an end to the conflict, it is more effective and risks fewer casualties if the enemy state’s will to fight is destroyed first. Warden did not advocate targeting civilians, stating that the civilian response to bombing is too unpredictable. Nonetheless, his theory made a significant contribution to the recent development of coercive bombing strategies, through his rejection of the focus on traditional military targets and greater emphasis on targeting the psychological state of the enemy.

Proponents of coercive bombing have expanded Warden’s theory into ethical justifications for attacking civilian morale. These proponents argue that the coercive approach is not only a wise military strategy, but also a more humane strategy. Destruction of civilian infrastructure is arguably preferable to the protracted killing that can result from a strictly military campaign. Thus, the ethical argument posits that the sooner the conflict is brought to an end the better the results for all parties. For example, U.S. Air Force Major Jeanne Meyer argues that the adoption of the Additional Protocol I definition of legitimate military objectives into both treaty and customary law may have unwittingly increased the potential human cost of conflict on both sides. These legal restrictions limit the use of one of the most fundamental and powerful applications of air power during conflict, and thus may act to extend combat, thereby increasing collateral damage and loss of life. The argument that Article 52(2) is in fact increasing the negative effects of conflict on civilians deserves significant consideration. If this argument proves true, then Article 52(2) is acting against the very purpose of its implementation.

Finally, in response to international legal prohibitions on civilian targeting, particularly the Article 52(2) definition, proponents of coercive bombing argue that protection of civilian life does not necessarily correlate with protection of civilian lifestyle. In other words, while there is no dispute that civilians themselves must not be intentionally targeted, the amenities that civilians enjoy should not fall under this limitation. Proponents of this argument posit that the temporary disablement or destruction of civilian property, such as electrical grids, should be considered legitimate so long as it is carried out with the intention of advancing the course of war. The rationale behind this argument lays in the fact that, in war, a certain degree of civilian hardship is inevitable, but if an attacking state can use this hardship to reduce civilian collateral, then IHL should not prohibit such a strategy. A restrictive reading of Protocol I’s definition of legitimate targets may in fact limit the ability of an attacking state to employ a powerful and effective military strategy, and may thus prolong the conflict.

The Ethical Argument Against Coercive Bombing

In addition to the legal prohibition on civilian targeting, there is a powerful ethical argument against coercive bombing. There are physical and psychological consequences associated with the destruction of critical civilian infrastructure. When dual-use infrastructure is targeted, a vital distinction must be made between direct civilian deaths, namely the immediate collateral loss resulting from an attack, and indirect civilian deaths that occur as a result of the infrastructural damage caused by an attack. For example, in the 1991 Gulf War, while the extensive bombing campaign killed relatively few civilians (approximately 3,000 deaths, or 0.034 deaths per tonnage of bombs dropped), a much greater number of civilians, over 100,000 by some estimates, died as a result of the effects of coalition bombing. The destruction of the electrical grid in Baghdad, which led to a loss of water, sewer, and power services, had particularly disastrous consequences.

Since modern cities have become so highly dependent on critical infrastructure like electrical grids for survival, attacking this infrastructure (even if justified by military doctrine) has far-reaching and often devastating consequences for the urban population. As argued by urban geographer Stephen Graham, “in globalized, networked and highly urbanized societies, which rely utterly and continuously on complex . . . technical systems, war and terrorism increasingly become strategies of deliberate . . . de-modernization.” While proponents of the coercive strategy argue that it is an ethical approach because it spares lives by ending the conflict, the indirect losses that can result from such attacks do not factor in to this equation. When military strategy is approached from an ethical or humanitarian perspective, the long-term impacts on the civilian population should factor into any decision to bomb dual-use infrastructure. An attacker should incorporate this calculation into the decision to adopt a coercive policy, even if the law does not require it.

An additional humanitarian concern relating to infrastructural targeting is the discriminatory effect of such attacks on different segments of the enemy population. The most vulnerable members of society will feel the effects of coercive bombing most acutely. The destruction of electrical grids causes food to spoil and prevents water purification. The unemployment and costs of rebuilding that follow from infrastructural damage negatively affect a state’s economy for the long-term. While these consequences affect all economic classes, it is the poorest individuals who have the most difficult time coping with such losses.

Does Coercive Bombing Work?

An evaluation of the ethical arguments in favor and in opposition to coercive bombing is only complete when the effectiveness of the strategy is also considered. As demonstrated by Thomas, the effectiveness of coercive bombing at ending conflict has not been clearly established. A 1996 study by Robert Pape found that aerial attacks are more likely to succeed at changing the target state’s behavior when they exploit military vulnerabilities (destroying the enemy’s ability to retaliate) rather than civilian vulnerabilities (targeting civilian industrial assets to undermine support for the war effort).

Pape’s survey of air power from 1917 to 1991 was expanded by Horowitz and Reiter in 2001. The 2001 study used multivariate probit analysis on 53 cases of air power coercion occurring between 1917 and 1999, and confirmed Pape’s finding that at-tacks on the enemy’s military capacity are more effective at coercing the target state to change its behavior. If, as these findings indicate, bombing with the intent to affect civilian moral is not as effective as bombing with the intent to destroy military capacity, then incidences of strategic bombing might not meet the condition of necessity with regard to civilian damage. These findings conceivably make attacks on dual-use targets more difficult to justify than military targets.

Additionally, the difficulty of guaranteeing specific political outcomes from coercive bombing lessens its effectiveness. An evaluation of the impact of coercive bombing on civilian psychology is difficult, if not impossible, because, “evaluation re-quires not merely an assessment of physical damage but an analysis of the entire enemy system.” As argued by Byman and Waxman, “while air power and other military instruments that can strike valuable targets may be extremely precise in a technological sense, fine tuning their political effects on an adversary population remains largely beyond the capability of planners and political leaders.” There is always the risk that a coercive campaign will backfire by inflaming the nationalist passions of the populace who then rally behind their leader. Considering the ambiguous legal constraints on coercive bombing, along with the existence of arguments both in favor and against the tactic, the next section of this paper focuses on analyzing a factual scenario in order to elucidate the theoretical issues discussed above.

Case Study: NATO Intervention in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 1999

Operation Allied Force, NATO’s military campaign in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, lasted from March 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999. The operation relied almost exclusively on air power to neutralize or destroy targets in Kosovo, Belgrade and elsewhere in Serbia. The goal of the intervention was to bring an end to the human rights abuses being committed by members of the Serbian military in Kosovo. The campaign has generated considerable academic debate with respect to NATO’s justification for its recourse to force (jus ad bellum) and its conduct throughout the campaign itself (jus in bello). This analysis focuses specifically on two questions: Did NATO violate International Humanitarian Law by attacking dual-use infrastructure in Belgrade? And what ethical implications emerge from these attacks?

This case is investigated for two main reasons. First, the aerial strategy used in the campaign has generated extensive controversy. Proponents of coercive bombing have hailed the campaign as a prime example of the effectiveness of the strategy, while human rights groups have accused NATO of causing disproportional and unnecessary civilian damage. Second, the objectives of the mission were humanitarian in nature. NATO invaded Serbia as a direct response to the atrocities being committed in Kosovo by the Serbian military. The purpose of the intervention, according to NATO, was to “halt a humanitarian catastrophe and restore stability.” This author argues that the humanitarian justification for the intervention raises additional concerns with respect to the ethical arguments against the use of the coercive strategy. These concerns are discussed further below.


A review of the geographical pattern of the campaign reveals that NATO focused its bombing to a greater extent on dual-use targets in Serbia, than on the Serb military, paramilitary and police forces in Kosovo. Additionally, at the NATO summit on April 23, 1999, the alliance decided to intensify the air campaign by expanding the target set to include military-industrial infrastructure, media, and other strategic targets. However, NATO went to great lengths to justify every target as a military objective, and to portray the campaign as humane and precise. The acceptance of dual-use targeting under Article 52(2) allowed NATO to find legal justification for attacks on what were often strategic targets. Despite Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch allegations that NATO committed war crimes in Serbia, the Committee Established to Review the NATO Bombing against the FRY reported to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that either the law was too ambiguous or there was insufficient evidence to justify pursuing further investigations into allegations that NATO violated International Humanitarian Law. Thus, NATO committed no overt violation of IHL in Serbia.

The Ethical Argument in Support of Coercive Bombing

The ethical argument in support of coercive bombing relies on the assumption that civilian disturbance will lead to popular discontent with the target state’s political regime. As a result, the population will force its leadership to capitulate to the demands of the attacking state, thus protecting itself from protracted war-fare. Statements made by NATO and American military personnel reflect recognition that coercive targeting played a crucial role in accomplishing Milosevic’s submission to NATO demands. As stated in the Report on the Bombing of Serbia to the U.S. Air Force, “the key reason Milosevic agreed to accept the terms presented to him on June 2 [1999] was his fear of the bombing that would follow if he refused.” Proponents saw the popular discontent in Belgrade as an unsustainable threat to regime stability. In addition, at the time of Milosevic’s capitulation, the Serbian military was not damaged to a point where it could no longer retaliate; so Milosevic did not give in to NATO because he had lost all military capacity. This again lends credence to the argument that the threat of more coercive bombing brought the conflict to an early resolution.

Nonetheless, a number of factors likely also contributed to Milosevic’s decision to capitulate. These include, but are not limited to, the possibility of a NATO ground invasion, which would have further threatened the stability of the Milosevic regime, and also the declining Russian support for the regime. As a powerful ally on the world stage, Russian support was undoubtedly important to Milosevic. Also, the threat of air power did not immediately bring Serbia’s actions in Kosovo to an end. Rather, the bombing campaign went on for two and a half months before the government withdrew Serbian troops from Kosovo. While NATO did accomplish its objectives, and while the bombing of dual-use infrastructure may have played a role in this accomplishment, the compounding factors listed above weaken the strength of the argument that dual-use targeting was critical to the success of the mission.

The Ethical Argument Against Coercive Bombing

The ethical argument against attacks on dual-use infrastructure in Serbia relies primarily on the civilian impact of the campaign and whether that impact was disproportionate when compared to the military objective gained through the attacks. While reports are conflicting, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch estimate that somewhere between 400 and 600 Yugoslav civilians were killed as a direct result of NATO bombing. However, there is no evidence to suggest that NATO ever intentionally attacked civilians during the campaign. Additionally, collateral damage is acceptable under IHL so long as an attacker takes all necessary precautions to minimize risk, and the damage is proportional and necessary.

NATO forces did, however, attack a great deal of infrastructure throughout the course of the campaign, including bridges, factories, radio stations, and electrical grids. Power-generation targets represent one interesting example for this analysis, as their destruction has broad ranging consequences for the civilian population. Long-term environmental damage resulting from attacks on oil refineries and chemical plants, and the exorbitant economic costs of rebuilding the destroyed urban infrastructure are two additional examples of the indirect consequences of the bombing campaign.

Traditionally, power generators have been considered legitimate military targets as long as the electricity coming from the plants is used for military purposes. However, because most industrialized countries, including Yugoslavia, have integrated national electrical grids, shutting down power to the military also shuts down power to the civilian population. Between May 13 and May 31, 1999, highly specialized weapons know as “Soft Bombs” were used against Serbian electrical generation systems causing blackouts for up to four days over large parts of Serbia, with smaller scale outages continuing until mid-June. In order to minimize unnecessary collateral damage, NATO employed this soft bomb technology, which used graphite filaments to short-circuit electrical transformers, instead of traditional bombs. Because the filaments could be easily removed, thus restoring power, NATO began using “hard” bombs on May 22, 1999 to permanently disable the power plants. While electrical grids were justified as legitimate targets because of their military function, they were also bombed strategically. U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short was a particularly outspoken proponent of using power-outages to destabilize civilian support for the Milo-sevic regime. He was quoted as saying, “Just think if after the first day, the Serbian people had awakened and their refrigerators weren’t running, there was no water in their kitchens or bathrooms, no lights . . . they would have asked: ‘All this after the first night? What is the rest of this [conflict] going to look like?’”

Loss of power had serious implications for the civilian population. Serbia’s Health Minister, Leposava Milicevic, in an inter-view with CNN, stressed the difficulties the hospitals were experiencing due to the power outages, “many hospitals had lost power and were functioning on backup generators which could fail within hours, affecting hospitalized patients, including in-fants in incubators. . . . We have a very great problem with sup-plying water.” Mary-Wynne Ashford and Ulrich Gottstein, medical practitioners and prominent members of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), substantiate Milicevic’s statements in a medical survey of the impact of the NATO bombing campaign on Serbian civilians. Their survey concludes that the “targeting of electrical generating plants, water treatment facilities, Danube bridges, railways and roads has adverse effects on civilian life, endangers health and seriously affects health care. The military strategy of attack on civilian infrastructures is a war on public health.”

The crucial consideration in a legal analysis of NATO’s at-tacks on electrical grids and other dual-use objects is whether the military objective gained was proportional to the collateral dam-age cause by the attacks, and whether the attack was “necessary,” as defined in IHL. As noted, NATO was not found to have violated IHL in its campaign in Serbia. This author argues, how-ever, that an ethical analysis of the campaign must include one further consideration, namely, that NATO’s purpose for intervening in Serbia and Kosovo was humanitarian. While NATO’s objectives certainly do not negate the alliance’s ability to legitimately target dual-use infrastructure, the imperative of resolving the conflict at least in part through strategic infrastructural bombing came at a significant cost to the Yugoslavian civilian populace. As stated by legal scholar Christopher Penny, “moral theory generally holds that military operations must be conducted with concern for preventing the loss of innocent lives, whether they are justified on humanitarian grounds or not.” Additionally, as stated in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Report, since humanitarian intervention “involves a form of military action significantly more narrowly focused and targeted than all out war fighting, an argument can be made that even higher standards should apply in these cases.” The fact that one of NATO’s main objectives was protection of civilians conceivably strengthens the ethical argument against coercive bombing in Serbia.

A strategy of manipulating morale by increasing civilian hardship violates the very purpose of Additional Protocol I, which is to protect civilians from the consequences of armed conflict. While the exception of dual-use infrastructure can be used to legally justify targeting strategic objects, the protection of one group of civilians should not be used to justify actions aimed at intentionally increasing the hardships of another group of civilians. Civilians should not be subjected to different military standards based on their political influence. As argued by Penny, “killing populations in order to save them cannot form the moral basis for a just and lasting international order.”

Implications and Policy Recommendations

This legal and ethical discussion of dual-use infrastructure and coercive bombing raises a number of critical questions regarding the use of air power in military campaigns. First, is the Additional Protocol I, Article 52(2) definition of a military objective sufficiently precise to protect civilians in light of the military emphasis on strategic, dual-use bombing? For example, another NATO target, Radio Televizija Srbije (RTS) in Belgrade, highlights this concern. The military uses of RTS were purportedly radio relay and transmission to support the activities of the FRY military and, more controversially, distribution of propaganda in support of the Milosevic regime. Between ten and seventeen civilians are estimated to have been killed in the attack, and approximately sixteen others were wounded. If RTS was an illegitimate military target, the deaths of these civilians would constitute a violation of IHL. However, as the law surrounding dual-use targeting is ambiguous, no definitive claims can be made to this effect. The bombing of RTS is one example of a legal but morally questionable expansion of Article 52(2) to incorporate more strategic targets. This example thus raises the question of whether this legal definition is capable of fulfilling its purpose of protecting civilians in times of war.

Numerous authors, including ethics scholar Henry Shue, argue strongly against a broad reading of Article 52(2), for example to include propaganda as an “effective contribution to military action.” Shue, in fact, advocates changing the definition to make attacks on dual-use targets with the intent to harm civilians unambiguously illegal. While coercive bombing violates the very principles first defined by the Geneva Convention in 1949, when applied in good faith, Article 52(2) allows combatants to carry out attacks that may provide a crucial military advantage. The law is therefore ambiguous for important tactical reasons. This ambiguity does not exist to allow belligerent states to justify attacks that contradict the purpose of the prohibition, however. Thus, this paper recommends that states must rethink military policies that include targeting civilian morale through attacks on dual-use infrastructure. Particularly in the case of a humanitarian intervention, intervening states should not overlook the purpose of Article 52(2) and the customary norm prohibiting intentional targeting of civilians, even if this arguably advances the course of war. Such a policy discriminates between the civilians of the populace being protected or defended and the civilians of the target country, and contradicts the state’s very justification for invasion.
As air power continues to become more precise, and as the media becomes more embedded in wars, a second important consideration emerges. The greater likelihood that casualties of a distant military campaign will be brought to the attention of a casualty-sensitive domestic population, the more favorable an aerial campaign might become. As identified earlier, aerial strategies allow the attacking state to significantly reduce its likelihood of sustaining casualties, particularly when a state enjoys air superiority. As air power becomes more refined, distant objects will become more feasible targets, and attacks on urban infrastructure may be more readily justified since greater precision further reduces the likelihood of civilian casualties. These realities of modern warfare challenge the limits of Article 52(2). As the probability of sustaining casualties for both the belligerents and for the civilian population declines due to increased precision, the moral argument in favor of coercive bombing may gain further support. However, the indirect civilian impact of an attack, no matter how precise, must always be considered. Thus, this paper further recommends that, when states and military strategists consider the norm of civilian protection in strategy-making, they must include not only the immediate consequences of an attack on dual-use infrastructure, but also the inevitable long-term costs to the local civilian population. No matter where they reside, civilians should always benefit from the protections defined for them in IHL.


This paper has presented a brief overview of the legal and ethical arguments related to aerial strategy and the targeting of dual-use infrastructure. The law is ambiguous and, depending on one’s interpretation, can be used to justify coercive bombing. An ethical argument in favor of coercive bombing, which posits that the strategy spares lives by advancing the progression of war, has been used to support strategic attacks on dual-use infrastructure. However, when one considers the human costs of such attacks, both in the short- and long-term, such targeting becomes more difficult to justify. In the case of a humanitarian intervention, intentionally increasing the hardship of the civilian population is unjustifiable, as it contradicts the very principles of civilian protection. States must remain wary that they do not contradict their own justifications for war, particularly in light of the growing number of international humanitarian interventions. Coercive attacks on dual-use infrastructure violate the very purpose of civilian protection norms and must be avoided.

Kristen M. Thomasen is a MA candidate in international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Her research focuses on international law, human rights, and health.

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