Rules of Engagement (ROE)

War is a difficult, hard, uncompromising, and relentless undertaking. For soldiers, the rigors of battle require mental and physical toughness, as well as teamwork and esprit de corps. Between one battle and another, long hours are spent doing routine and monotonous but necessary tasks, often under adverse weather, extreme temperatures, wet weather, facing mud, mosquitoes, minor injuries, moving from position to position, often no hot meals, clean clothes or sleep. The potential for disruption in discipline is always present.

Field forces must operate rules of engagement (ROE) to conduct war in accordance with international law and within the conditions specified by their commands. The combat power necessary to ensure victory through the proper and disciplined use of force must be applied. Avoiding abuses such as inappropriate behavior and harmful consequences of the current political situation is the objective of ROE.

Commander’s Responsibility

It is up to commanders to strive for the ROE to be met. Operations plans must ensure their achievement and must be clear to the entire force at all levels.

ROE Purposes

ROE must be made known to all internal audiences (all and military and personnel acting together), based on 3 sets of considerations: political, legal, and military.

Political considerations are those of an ethical and/or practical nature and aim to fulfill the intentions of governments regarding certain sensitive terms, such as requiring superior authorization for the use of nuclear weapons due to the negative repercussions that these may trigger, or the prohibition of the use of a certain territory that would facilitate the war effort, so as not to alienate another nation. In the Coalition War against Iraq, during the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq launched Russian SCUD rockets in order to force Israel into the war. This fact would call into question the entire coalition formed to liberate Kuwait. The Americans directed many aerial bombing missions in order to destroy these launchers, an objective irrelevant to the war itself, to the detriment of the previously outlined plan for the use of air assets, delaying the completion of the initial aerial offensive by a few days. Another example is the prohibition to destroy hospitals, churches, shrines, schools, museums, and any other historical or cultural sites, except in self-defense.

Legal considerations take into account international treaties and conventions and must be followed by countries that have ratified these treaties. A classic legal consideration is that an act of belligerence cannot be initiated without a formal declaration of war, a commonly disregarded norm.

In the military field, we have rules that mainly aim at the security of forces in the field and the administration of forces in that theater, such as the prohibition of socializing with natives or deploying troops in certain inappropriate places. ROE is not the same as fire control measures. Fire control measures are implemented by commanders based on tactical considerations. An example of a fire control measure that serves tactical purposes is the common requirement in ground operations that organic artillery tubes for a unit not be fired beyond a designated fire support coordination line (LCAF); this ensures an efficient division of labor between fires controlled locally (by the command in question) and those controlled by the higher echelon. In addition, it helps prevent indirect fire fratricide.

The purposes of ROE often overlap; rules that implement strategic policy decisions can serve an operational or tactical military goal while bringing operational forces into conformity with national or international law. As a result, troops in the field cannot always appreciate the reasons why a specific rule was adopted.
ROE must evolve with mission requirements and be adapted to the realities encountered. It must be a flexible instrument designed to best support the mission through various operational phases and must reflect changes in the threat.

Writing Considerations

Operational requirements, policies, and laws define ROE. They must always recognize the military’s right to self-defense, the commander’s right and his obligation to self-defense, and the corporation’s right to defend itself and its allies and coalition partners against any aggression. In the Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE), the Joint Chiefs of Staff provide basic guidance and procedures to supplement this guidance for specific operations. Effective ROE must be applicable, understandable, tactically correct, and legally sufficient. Furthermore, effective ROE is mission responsive and consistent with the unit’s initiative.

In all operations, they can impose political, operational, and legal limitations on commanders. Limiting the use of particular types of weapons or exempting the territory of certain nations from operations are examples of such limitations. At the tactical level, ROE can extend to the criteria for initiating engagements with certain weapon systems (eg, unobserved fire) or reacting to attack.

Effective ROE complies with national and international laws, including the body of international law relating to armed conflict. Thus, ROE never justifies illegal actions. In all situations, soldiers and commanders use the necessary and proportionate force.

Effective ROE does not assign specific tasks or direct specific tactical solutions; they allow a commander to quickly and clearly communicate to subordinate units the desired posture toward the use of force. When passing orders to subordinates, a commander must act within the ROE received. However, ROE never relieves the commander of his responsibility to formulate the end state, objectives, mission, and other elements of the operational design. Commanders at all levels continually review the ROE to ensure its effectiveness in light of current and projected conditions in their area of ​​operations.

Situation Considerations

A given operational scenario is described by mission factors, enemy and threat, terrain and weather, troops, available time, and civilian considerations. The situation is the context that dominates all aspects of planning, including ROE. Across the range of potential military operations, commanders may encounter situations of bewildering complexity. This complexity is reduced, at the operational and tactical levels of conflict, by applying the conceptual model:

  • The mission establishes the purpose of the operation.
  • Planners must consider an Enemy’s dispositions, equipment, doctrine, capabilities, and likely intentions—real and potential. The current conflict environment is increasingly characterized by shades of gray in which enemies are less apparent. Commanders also assess potential threats to mission success, such as disease, political instability, and misinformation.
  • Terrain and weather affect mobility, concealment, observation, coverage, approaches, and the effectiveness of military operating systems.
  • The commander must consider the nature of the troops – their military capabilities. Troop characteristics such as numbers, mobility, protection, training, and moral influence plans for their employment.
    The time available for mission preparation and execution is critical and can dramatically influence the scope and nature of the plan.
  • Civil considerations are a key factor in the situation across the range of operations. Attitudes and activities of the civilian population in the area of ​​operation influence the outcome of military operations. Refugees and humanitarian assistance requirements are frequent concerns, not only in stability operations or support operations but also in conventional combat. Inter-institutional operations employ civilian resources, non-subordinate government components, and private, voluntary, and non-governmental organizations, thus multiplying the effectiveness of operations.

Definitions and Key Concepts

ROE is defined in Publications as “directives issued by the competent military authority that outline the circumstances and limitations under which forces will initiate and/or continue combat with other encountered forces”. A few examples illustrate the wide range of rules that fit this definition: requiring a ground-attack team to confirm that all target acquisition systems are operating to bomb a barracks adjacent to a civilian population center; prohibit the entry of navy ships into territorial seas or the internal waters of a neutral nation; or authorize an infantryman at a guard post to use lethal force against saboteurs of mission-essential equipment.

Wartime ROE vs. Permanent ROE

In general, ROE differs in times of war to reflect the growing justification for the use of force. Wartime ROE allows forces to open fire on all identified enemy targets, regardless of whether those targets pose real and immediate threats. In contrast, SROE, which will be discussed later, only allows for engagement in individual, unitary or national self-defense. Most of the legal grounds for the international use of force during peacetime are traceable to self-defense.

Wartime ROE is familiar to units and soldiers because training is battle-focused and focuses on warfare tasks. All military personnel in all occupational specialties receive instruction and undergo assessments of the basic rules of warfare, such as “attack only combat targets” and “not to destroy property unless required by the needs of warfare.” In war, commanders will seek to make ROE no more restrictive than international law.

The principles of necessity and proportionality help define the peacetime justification for using force in self-defense and are therefore fundamental to understanding ROE in these scenarios. The necessity principle allows friendly forces to involve only those forces that commit hostile acts or clearly demonstrate hostile intent. This formulation – a very restrictive rule on the use of force – captures the essence of the need for peacetime under international law. The rule of necessity applies to individuals as well as military units or sovereign states. Definitions of “hostile act” and “hostile intent” complete the meaning of “need”. A hostile act is an attack or other use of force. Hostile intent “is the threat of imminent use of force.” The precise content of these definitions becomes sensitive when ROE describes specific behaviors as hostile acts or equates specific objective characteristics with hostile intent. For example, ROE can define a uniformed foreign soldier aiming a machine gun from behind a prepared firing position as a clear demonstration of hostile intent, regardless of whether the soldier actually intended to fire.

The principle of proportionality requires that the force used to be reasonable in intensity, duration, and magnitude, based on all facts known to the commander at the time, to decisively combat the hostile act or hostile intent and to ensure the continued security of the forces. As with necessity, the principle of proportionality reflects an old international legal norm.

Types of ROE

The mere restatement of basic legal principles of proportionality and necessity does not specifically indicate the circumstances under which soldiers may fire weapons in self-defense, corporate or individual. These principles also fail to articulate the myriad of restrictions a commander can impose on a force to serve the non-legal purposes mentioned above. Commands can insert numerous types of specific rules in the annexes to the ROE to further elaborate the rules of necessity and proportionality and to dictate precise terms of restrictions that are not derived from the law.

The following descriptions of rule types allow you to speak accurately about ROE.

Hostility Criteria. Provide decision-makers with authorization to fire with a set of objective factors to help determine whether a potential attacker exhibits hostile intent and thus clarify whether fire can be fired before the fire is fired by the hostile element.

Conflict Escalation. A graded demonstration of force is specified that ground troops must use in ambiguous situations, before resorting to lethal force. This includes measures such as giving a verbal warning, wearing a badge, or perhaps firing a warning shot. Limits can be placed on the pursuit of an attacker.

Protection of Property and Foreigners. It details what and who can be defended with force, in addition to the lives of soldiers and national citizens. Include measures to be taken to prevent ongoing crimes or the escape of criminals.

Weapon Control Status/Warning Conditions. Announce, for air defense units, a posture to resolve doubts about whether or not to get involved. Units that observe alert conditions are announced a series of measures designed to adjust the unit’s readiness for the attack to the level of perceived threat. Measures can include some or all of the other functional types of rules.

Possession of Weapons. Determine which soldiers in the force will be able to carry which types of weapons and with which ammunition at which times, in addition to their individual weaponry.

Approval of Use of Weapon Systems. It designates which specific level commander must approve the use of specific weapon systems.

Eyes on target. Require a target to be observed by one or more human or electronic means.

Territorial or Geographical Restrictions. Creation of geographic zones or areas in which forces cannot fire. Designate a territorial, perhaps political, boundary beyond which forces cannot fire or enter, except perhaps in pursuit of an attacking force. Include tactical control measures that coordinate fire and maneuver through graphic illustrations on operations map overlays.

Labor Restrictions. Prescribe numbers and types of soldiers to be committed to a theater or area of ​​operations. Perhaps prohibit the use of national labor in politically or diplomatically sensitive personnel tasks that require allied personnel.

Restrictions on Point and Means of War Targets. Prohibit targeting of certain individuals or facilities. The basic rules of the law of war can be reaffirmed for situations where a hostile force is identified and a prolonged armed conflict breaks out.

Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE)

It is the master document in the field of ROE. It provides implementation guidance on the inherent right to self-defense and the application of force to accomplish the mission. SROE applies to all forces – with limited exceptions for Multinational Force Operations (MNF), Civil Disturbances, and Disaster Relief – and is designed to provide a common model for the development and implementation of ROEs across the range of operations military. The SROE is divided into 3 main parts:

General Rules:

This document details the overall purpose, intent, and scope of SROE, emphasizing the commander’s right – and obligation to use force in self-defense. Critical principles – such as unitary, national, and collective self-defense, hostile acts and intentions, and the determination to declare hostile forces – are treated as fundamental elements of the entire ROE. Appendices can provide specific guidance regarding the scope of authority to use force, a delegation of authority to declare hostile forces and exercise the right of national self-defense, and application of the principle of proportionality, and address special considerations associated with peacekeeping, command, control, and information warfare (C2I), combat and non-combat evacuation operations. In addition, force-specific appendices (eg, maritime, land, and air) detail indicators of hostile intent, geographic limitations of authority, and other concerns specific operations within the defined force structure.

Supplementary Measures:

Supplemental Measures are menu lists of ROE measures that can be taken, requested, granted, or not used. The supplemental measures found in this topic allow the commander to obtain or grant those additional authorizations necessary to carry out an assigned mission. Supplemental measurement tables are divided between actions that require approval and those that can be delegated to subordinate commanders. It is important to remember that SROE is fundamentally permissive in nature, allowing a commander to use any weapon or tactic available and employ reasonable force to accomplish his mission. These supplemental measures are intended to serve as a planning tool. Inclusion on the SROE Supplemental List does not suggest that the commander needs to seek authority to use any of the items listed – this is only when incorporated into the ROE issued for a specific operation. Supplemental ROE refers to mission accomplishment, not self-defense, and never limits the commander’s inherent right and obligation to self-defense.

Special Compendium:

This part contains a list of effective ROE guidelines, with specific rules of commitment of the Area of ​​Responsibility presented by the Combatant Commanders. These special ROEs address specific strategic and policy sensitivities and must be approved by senior management. They are included in the SROE as a means of assisting commanders and units participating in operations outside their designated area.

The SROE may also contain technical definitions of self-defense:


SROE does not limit a commander’s inherent authority and obligation to use all necessary means available and to take all appropriate measures in self-defense of the commander’s unit and other nearby allied forces.

Unit Self-Defense: The act of defending elements or personnel of a defined unit – as well as nearby allied forces – against a hostile act or intent. As applied to the soldier on the ground, unit self-defense includes the concept of individual self-defense.

National Defense: the act of defending national soil and its forces and, in certain circumstances, citizens and their property, commercial assets, other designated forces outside the national territory, foreigners, and their property, from a hostile act or hostile intent.

The SROE distinguishes between the right and obligation of self-defense – which is not limited – and the use of force to fulfill a designated mission. The authority to use force in carrying out the mission may be limited in light of political, military, or legal concerns, but such limitations have no impact on the commander’s right and obligation to self-defense.

Once a threat has been declared to be a hostile force, individual units and soldiers can become involved without observing a hostile act or a demonstration of hostile intent. The basis for engagement becomes status rather than conduct. The authority to declare a hostile force is given only to specific individuals in special circumstances.

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