Destroyed buildings in Iraq.

"We see that human action remains central to the targeting process, and that this action can be understood in a number of ways - both as facilitating the process and as resisting it", says Anna Danielsson, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in War Studies. Photo: Archive/Unsplash

The human factor in wartime targeting processes

By analysing how the ’targeting process’ - selecting, prioritising and taking action on military targets - worked for the coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom, researchers at the Swedish Defence University study how human behaviour can be understood in a military process that has become increasingly bureaucratised and automated.

In a new article published in the scientific journal Review of International Studies, Anna Danielsson and Kristin Ljungkvist study how the targeting process affects and is affected by human actions. The concept of targeting involves identifying, selecting, prioritising and taking action on objects in a military operational environment, in order to achieve defined objectives. To some degree, the researchers oppose previous research in the field which states that the development of military technology has led to a bureaucratization and almost automation of the targeting process, and that this in turn, has reduced human agency in the process and made it more difficult for researchers to examine the 'human playing field'.

"Although previous research presented many interesting conclusions and perspectives, we were missing a deeper focus on the issue of human agency, as this plays an important role in matters of legitimacy and accountability in relation to military operations", says Anna Danielsson, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in War Studies.

Empirical material from the Iraq War

To analyse how the targeting process works in practice, the researchers reviewed a large amount of material, including a great number of ’lessons learned’ reports regarding coalition forces and the joint targeting process during the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011.

"We set out to study human agency in depth, but since it is difficult for us as researchers to observe an ongoing operation, we have relied on reports and assessments published both by the armed forces involved and by other observers, and media material. The evaluations are often very detailed and often interview-based, and these reports provide a good insight into the actors’ experiences of what they thought worked well and not so well", says Kristin Ljungkvist, Senior Lecturer in War Studies.

The article focuses on the initial phase of the operation, partly because it was during this period that the use of precision weapons was widespread.

"By this time, the targeting process had also undergone a number of revisions following the wars in Kosovo and Kuwait. The US Armed Forces, in particular, found the targeting process during the Iraq war incredibly successful", says Anna Danielsson.

Framework for understanding and distinguishing human agency in targeting

However, the researchers' analysis shows that the targeting process during Operation Iraqi Freedom was not carried out without friction. When the machinery hit a snag, it was often human agency that either slowed the process down or made it work using a temporary solution. The paper provides examples of situations where human agency was particularly evident and how, and it presents a conceptual framework that can help identify, understand and distinguish between different expressions of agency in the targeting process.

"One example is the lists of potential targets that is prepared before an operation. Because the targeting process during the operation was very efficient in one aspect, the targets were defeated quicker than planned. To keep the momentum, the groups involved had to rearrange their work procedures and adjust their tasks", says Kristin Ljungkvist.

Another example is that the understanding of some procedures and steps in the process changed during the operation.

"This is also related to the fact that everything happened so quickly. Sometimes, there was no time to evaluate completed attacks, a crucial step that was skipped. In addition, some rules and approaches were reinterpreted during the process", says Kristin Ljungkvist.

During the operation, there were conflicts between some of the groups involved in the targeting process, for example regarding how to prioritise different targets.

"From time to time, resources had to be shifted around at short notice, which lead to disagreements about mandates. Sometimes this was resolved by simply refusing to carry out the order. There are examples of pilots refusing to attack certain planned targets during the operation because they thought civilians could be harmed", says Kristin Ljungkvist.

A broader understanding of the targeting process

The researchers aims for the article to provide a broader understanding of targeting and contribute with new insights and suggestions on how the process can be studied.

"We believe that although targeting has evolved into a more bureaucratised and automated process in many ways, it still involves people. Their actions matter and should be understood in relation to the continuity of the process. This, in turn, is important when the focus shifts to issues of accountability and legitimacy of an operation", says Anna Danielsson.

"Given that existing research has shifted its focus away from the issue of human agency, our article contributes to demonstrating its continuing role, as well as how human agency both shapes and is shaped by the targeting process. Our study contributes to the theory development in the field", says Kristin Ljungkvist.


Anna Danielsson & Kristin Ljungkvist (2022): A choking(?) engine of war: Human agency in military targeting reconsidered, Review of International Studies, 1-21.

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