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Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement (ROE) are directives issued by commanders that control the use of military force. Basic standards for the use of force have been with the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War. The classic example was: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.” Although basic standards for the use of force have long been used, the term Rules of Engagement is of recent origin. Detailed ROE standards were developed during the Cold War era, partly in response to the changing technology and increasing lethality of weapons.

The Laws of War (LOW) include international treaties and customary practices that guide civilized nations. The basic LOW principles of necessity, proportionality, and avoiding collateral damage are the fundamentals that guide the drafting of ROE for all U.S. military operations.

In the 1980s, a series of incidents caused a reexamination of ROE for U.S. forces. The multinational force ROE in Beirut in 1983 restricted sentries from loading their weapons without instructions from a commissioned officer. This rule was in effect when a suicide truck‐bomber ran the gate of the U.S. compound at the Beirut airport, destroying the Marine barracks and killing 241 Marines. In another incident, ambiguous ROE for the warship USS Vincennes contributed to the destruction of a civilian Iranian airliner and the death of all aboard on 3 July 1988. After an extensive review, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1994 approved new Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE) to replace the Peacetime Rules of Engagement (PROE) in use since 1988. The SROE provide for self‐defense whenever U.S. forces are subjected to a hostile act or when there is clear evidence of hostile intent.

Military lawyers are usually involved in the preparation and dissemination of ROE, but guidance on the use of force is ultimately the commander's responsibility. When U.S. forces engage in multinational or United Nations– sponsored operations, U.S. policy now requires effective ROE that provide adequately for both mission accomplishment and self‐defense.
[See also Peacekeeping.]


Major Mark S. Martins , U.S. Army, Rules of Engagement for Land Forces: A Matter of Training, Not Lawyering, Military Law Review (Winter 1994).
Colonel F. M. Lorenz , U.S. Marine Corps, Forging Rules of Engagement, Military Review (November–December 1995), p. 17.

F. M. Lorenz

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