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Key Concepts: Definitions:

Principles of Application of Armed Force:

Starfleet Military Reserves -- Laws of Armed Combat (LOAC) Briefing

This document covers the following topics:

  1. Historical background underlying the law of armed conflict
  2. Basic LOAC principles
  3. Rules for targeting
  4. Legal and illegal weapons
  5. Prisoners of war
  6. Reporting requirements
  7. Consequences of a violation of LOAC

SECTION I - Historical Background

Law of Armed Conflict or LOAC are the broad based rules defining how we fight a war. LOAC differs from Rules of Engagement in that ROE are specific instructions telling us how to operate during a specific scenario.

Although it may seem strange that we have rules telling us how to fight wars, LOAC principles have developed from a variety of places.

Now that you know where the law comes from, you may wonder why do we need rules telling us how to fight a war. There are many reasons. Some are political or philosophical. These reasons include minimizing the damage we cause during a war, avoiding unnecessary suffering, protecting sapients' rights, and easing the transition from war back to peace.

Although it may seem odd, it has been shown that if a nation does its best to inflict as little damage to property and injury to people as possible, the losing nation is more likely to accept the terms of peace.

Equally important is that following LOAC helps us in our military operations. For example, it is a violation of LOAC to destroy a recognized holy site. Most people would agree that a temple venerated by a large group of worshippers is not a military threat. If we waste ordnance blowing up that temple, that is less ordnance for use against a legitimate military target such as an enemy starbase.

So you can see that by following the rules of LOAC, we save our people and weapons for the most important targets. This helps us maximize our mission effectiveness in a war.

Section II: Basic Principles

The rules that make up LOAC come from 3 basic principles.

First is MILITARY NECESSITY. We only take actions necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective. Think back to that temple. There was no military objective to be gained by targeting it so we don't.

Second, we AVOID INFLICTING UNNECESSARY SUFFERING. That is, we don't hurt people or destroy their property just for the sake of wreaking havoc.

There are, of course, many times when a target may provide a military advantage but may also cause some unnecessary suffering. This is where we use the third principle, PROPORTIONALITY. That is to say, we use no greater force than is needed to obtain the desired military objective.

You can think of proportionality as a balancing test. For instance, let's say that Dominion forces have captured an inhabited planet. Clearly there is a military need to neutralize the Jemhadar presence on the surface. However, we will also potentially kill a lot of innocent civilians. Proportionality may tell us not to bombard the surface or to use surface military forces. You can see that our commanders must place a lot of careful thought into creating an operations plan.

Section III - Targeting

Now that we know the basic LOAC principles, we can apply them to specific examples like targets.

We can basically target certain people, places, and things.

In a war you will come across many different kinds of people. Some people will be COMBATANTS. Combatants are all members of the military except for medical personnel, chaplains, POWs, wounded and sick, shipwrecked, and escape pods ejected from a disabled spacecraft. A combatant is a legal target.

You may also run into some NONCOMBATANTS. These people include medical personnel, chaplains, POWs, wounded and sick, shipwrecked, persons in unarmed escape pods, and civilians. NONCOMBATANTS are NOT legal targets. A noncombatant poses no military threat to us. Therefore, there is no military necessity (principle I) in targeting them.

How do you know if someone is a military medical personnel or chaplain? We all wear the same uniform right? Medical personnel and chaplains may wear the same uniform, but they will also wear an arm band with a red SMR symbol on a yellow background. In some cases, the symbol will be different for Starfleet, Klingon Imperial Forces, and Romulan Star Empire forces (select hyperlink to view illustrations). Noncombatant comm badges emit a noncombatant transponder code when queried. Only medical personnel and chaplains are allowed to wear a recognized noncombatant armband and have the noncombatant transponder code.

What happens if a NONCOMBATANT threatens your life? In that case, they have given up their protected status and become UNLAWFUL COMBATANTS. UNLAWFUL COMBATANTS are legal targets. Remember, you always have a right to self defense. This includes a right to defend yourself, other SMR troops, and SMR property.

We have talked about people we may encounter in a war. Now let's talk about places.

There are many legal places that we can target. Basically, any base, forward located military base or area housing troops is a legal target. Places like command post, military dorms, the dining facility, and military buildings are legal targets.

Places such as hospitals or religious buildings (church, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc.) are also protected--whether military or civilian buildings. Of course, the buildings must be marked with a noncombatant symbol and they cannot be used for other than religious purposes or treating the sick and injured people.

So if we store extra phaser rifles in the chapel or in a building adjacent to the hospital, our chapel and hospital may lose their protection. In other words we can not protect lawful targets by sheltering them in protected places.

Cultural landmarks are also protected places. Some examples are the Taj Majal and the Great Pyramids of Earth, or the ancient city of B'Hala on Bajor. Finally, Prisoner of War (POW) Camps are also protected places. They are not legal targets. POW camps, like hospitals and churches, must be marked. POW camps are marked with a rectangular yellow placard with a width/height ratio of 4:3, crossed by either a red diagonal or other symbols designating the facility as a POW facility. The POW markings should be of a size that renders them easily discernable at a distance.

Default POW Camp Placard

Federation POW Camp Placard

Klingon POW Camp Placard

Romulan POW Camp Placard

The last set of targets we may see in a war are things. Any military vehicle, ship tank, or aircraft is a legal target. An exception to this rule are vehicles and aircraft being used for medical purposes like ambulances or hospital ships.

Any military weapon is a legal target. For example, our photon and quantum torpedoes. A power plant is a legal target because it provides power to run military operations. Of course, we always have to remember proportionality and consider what taking out a power plant or a dam will do to civilians and other noncombatants.

Civilian factories are legal targets if they are being used to support the war effort. So uniform factories, weapons production plants or chemical weapons plants are all legal targets even if they are civilian factories.

Civilian property that does not support the war effort, for example, a local grocery store or jewelry store, is not a legal target. Also, you may NOT steal from civilians.

So as you can see, we can legally target a wide range of people, places, and things during a war.


All weapons used by the Starfleet Military Reserves are reviewed to make sure they are legal. So if SMR issues you a weapon, you can use it. Be sure to use the weapon in the form it is issued to you. Altering the weapon (e.g., retuning a phaser to create an agonizer) can make a legal weapon illegal.

Weapons are evaluated to see if they cause unnecessary suffering. If they do they are illegal. Poisons, asphyxiating (choking agents), and other gases are illegal. Biological and biogenic weapons are also illegal. Except under certain circumstances, quantum deconstruction and subspace-damaging weapons are also illegal.

Projectiles designed for small-arms used must be non-fragmenting to be legal. They cannot be expanding or exploding. Therefore glass projectile weapons are illegal. There are exceptions for some special forces and security police. If you are authorized to use fragmenting projectiles, the SMR will issue them to you. This is not a decision you make on your own.

SECTION V - Prisoners of War Prisoners of War (POWs or PWs) receive special protections under LOAC. Combatants are entitled to POW status. So are civilians who accompany the armed forces and crew members of both the merchant marine and civil spacecraft of parties to the conflict. Since it is not always clear who is a combatant and who is not, SMR policy is to treat all people as POWs until their status can be determined.

POWs are not returned until the end of the conflict. You may wonder since medical personnel and chaplains are not combatants do they get POW status? The answer is no. Medical personnel and chaplains are considered retained personnel. The enemy is only supposed to keep them long enough to treat our troops and they are supposed to be returned as soon as possible. Retained personnel are NOT to be held until the end of the conflict.

POWs are entitled to special protections. We are supposed to keep POWs separated from the battlefield if at all possible. Remember POW camps are supposed to be marked and are not legal targets. We can not use POWs to shield our own people. We can use restraints and blindfolds to secure POWs temporarily only if it is absolutely necessary to restrict their vision or movement. For example, we may use restraints to restrict a POW's movement when transporting him or her. However, once the POW reaches a holding area, the restraints must be removed.

POWs are not supposed to be used for propaganda purposes. They are entitled to humane treatment and respect. We are required to protect POWs from violence, intimidation, insults, and public curiosity.

POWs are entitled to keep their personal property such as wedding rings and family photographs. Any information they have pertaining to the military or war may be confiscated. Any weapons may be confiscated. Anything that can be used as a weapon, such as shoe laces or a helmet, maybe confiscated.

POWs are entitled to food, clothing and shelter, and possess the right to speak with a representative from a nonaligned nation. They are entitled to medical care equal to the care we give friendly forces. So if there is an SMR soldier with a broken arm and a Jemhadar soldier with a sucking chest wound, the Jemhadar gets treated first. Also, we must provide our POWs with protective gear such as hostile environment suits, if such would be normally issued to noncombatant personnel under similar conditions. During interrogations (usually conducted by SFI) POWs are only required to give their name, rank, DOB, and serial number (or equivalent information). We cannot torture or beat POWs to get additional information.

We can require POWs to work based on rank. However, the work cannot be dangerous or aid us in our war effort. Realistically do you want an enemy prisoner building your lookout tower? There is a high risk of poor workmanship and sabotage.

POWs are required to follow camp disciplinary rules. They may receive certain punishment for violating the rules. POWs may even be court-martialed, but, just like you, they are entitled to a fair trial and due process rights. This includes an interpreter or universal translator so they can understand the charges against them and the proceedings.

Most of you are probably thinking that most of our enemies do not abide by any of the rules we have talked about. That is a true statement. However, this does not relieve us of our obligation to follow the rules. Although it isn't fair for the other side to not follow the rules, we have decided to take the moral high ground when it comes to LOAC.

SECTION VI - Reporting Requirements

You have an affirmative duty to report any suspected LOAC violation. This includes violations by enemy, SMR, or any of our allied forces.

You should report any suspected LOAC violations to your commander, the Inspector General, the chaplain, or the legal office.

It does not matter if your suspicions turn out to be wrong. Always err on the side of caution and report things up the chain of command. In this case, it is truly better to be safe rather than sorry.

SECTION VII- Consequences

We all have an individual duty to know the law of armed conflict and to follow the rules. This includes reporting suspected violations. If we do not report them, we can be subject to trial by an international court or we can be prosecuted by the military.

You must also follow lawful orders. However, an order to commit a criminal act, such as a violation of the law of armed conflict, is must not follow it. You can presume an order to perform a military duty is legal, but following an order that an ordinary person would know to be illegal, isn't excusable. For instance, an order to shoot all unarmed civilians or to kill a POW would be illegal. Obeying it would be a violation.

What should you do if you think you've been given an illegal order? First, ask for clarification. Maybe the order was unclear, or you didn't understand it. If you still think the order is illegal, try to get it withdrawn. If that doesn't work, you must disobey it. If others obey the order, you have the duty to report that violation of the law of armed conflict.

If you have questions on any of the information contained in this training or any other LOAC/ROE questions, contact your local SMR legal office.

Remember: If you have a deployment commitment, it is your responsibility to make sure that all your powers of attorney, your will and any other legal documents are up to date. For more information, visit your local SMR legal office early.... Don't wait to the last minute - good legal advice takes time.

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following people and agencies:

The Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, AETC/JA, Randolph AFB TX.
for their informative site on the laws of armed conflict (LOAC).

Paul Cargile, for ripping apart at least the first draft (or for not ripping apart the first draft, depending...)

Charles David Sands, for encouraging me to press forward with this project,

And Josh Brzoznowski for answering questions that I had no answers for, and for pointing me in the right direction once or twice.