War is an inherently human endeavor, and capturing the enemy is an unavoidable consequence of warfare. The successful conduct of detainee operations requires a significant investment in terms of both security and sustainment. This mission has international strategic implications, capable of directly impacting U.S. national policy and national defense enterprises. Historically, the U.S. has struggled with detainee operations due to planning shortfalls. The challenge, in essence, is to sustain an unknown enemy population with a significant security requirement but without knowing the size, composition, timing, or location of that population.At point of capture, detainees will originate in the close area and will move rearward through support areas at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Detainee operations in the tactical and operational support area will be expected because of the direct and indirect support to the main fight. However, there is a historical precedent for prisoners of war (POW) housed on American soil which changes planning considerations for the strategic support area (SSA). We need to think about planning considerations now to avoid surprises and reactionary responses.Understanding the operational environment (OE) and how it pertains to the enemy population will help planners conduct mission analysis. With organization and preparation, detainee operations planning can anticipate population risks and mitigate the operational impacts to enable the full projection of combat power for mission accomplishment. This requires dedicated investment in mission analysis for detainee operations, to understand the enemy population, along with concerted synchronization efforts.The MissionThe U.S. upholds the Geneva Conventions, which specify the treatment of POWs and civilians in time of war. Violations of the Geneva Conventions in improper interrogation techniques or detainee operations planning and execution will be a strategic failure for our armed forces, that will lengthen the intensity of future conflicts and have a negative impact on the reputation of the U.S. government. These ethical obligations are understood by leaders on all levels; but the practical application, the ability to comprehend the magnitude of the requirements, and the synchronization of efforts presents a challenge. A division in large-scale combat operations (LSCO) may capture prisoners in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands throughout the course of a conflict. The responsibilities and requirements associated with the care for this detainee population are the same; but regardless of the scale, when and where the detention occurs matters.Joint Publication 3-63, Detainee Operations, defines a detainee as any person “captured, detained, or otherwise under control of [Department of Defense] personnel.” Detainee operations broadly encompass the “capture, initial detention and screening, transportation, treatment and protection, housing, transfer, and release of the wide-range of persons who could be categorized as detainees. During operations, the military must be able to plan, implement, and support detainee operations from the point of capture through the transfer, release, repatriation, escape, or death of a detainee.Sustainment requirements are challenging to project. It is even more challenging to position and sustain resources to meet those requirements. Planners will have to analyze requirements and make plans for transportation, life support, and construction materials for both hasty and deliberate facilities, medical support, and mortuary affairs as detainees move across the battlefield. Prisoner intake will be concentrated during phase III operations, when maneuver commanders are concerned with dominating the enemy and resources may be allocated to the fight. Prepositioning the necessary resources for detainee collection points and holding areas to support the fight will require advance analysis and coordination across multiple staff sections. Failure to coordinate and synchronize requirements creates an unnecessary and avoidable vulnerability.The RiskThe military increases risk by not understanding the detainee mission, not planning, and not supporting correctly. Poor or insufficient planning prior to conflict prevents the U.S. from effectively setting the theater. Failing to prepare delays the response time when the diversion of forces to support detainees may jeopardize the primary mission. As Soldiers, our instinct is to direct resources and assets to support friendly forces in the fight, but the legal and moral obligations created by taking detainees will require deliberate planning and resource allocation.The sensitive nature and high visibility of detainee operations is vulnerable to the potential of damaging or false information being perpetuated by media sources. Erroneous reports could impede U.S. military efforts as negative narratives may impact domestic political support or international coalition partnerships. Adversaries will look for any opportunities to exploit this vulnerability. Additionally, contact with the detained enemy combatant population may put friendly forces at risk; such as exposing U.S. personnel to disease, especially if a contagion has not been anticipated.Historical ChallengesContemporary challenges with detainee operations echo history. Failure to anticipate the need to detain large numbers of individuals, to have in place an adequate doctrine for doing so, and to have trained and disciplined personnel to understand and execute the doctrine have been recurring challenges. A historical review identifies different U.S. approaches to the detainee mission but with unique considerations to each conflict. Detainee populations are larger during conventional fights than in counterinsurgencies but the problems are similar.In World War II, the U.S. held more POWs than every other conflict combined, a total of more than seven million German, Italian, and Japanese prisoners. To reduce the logistical strain to support these large populations overseas, the military shipped prisoners stateside. Nearly 450,000 prisoners were held in the continental U.S. in more than 500 camps across America. Military planners grossly underestimated both the size and speed of capture of prisoners. Capture rates rose slowly, but did not sky rocket until after the Normandy invasion; planners anticipated 60,000 prisoners in the 90 days following D-Day, but Allies captured almost 200,000 prisoners and sent them to the U.S. Initial camp construction focused on security considerations and cost effectiveness, but public sentiment heavily weighed in on location selection. Eventually, prisoners were used to replace U.S. troop personnel for Army installation maintenance.In Vietnam, the U.S. military turned detainees over to the South Vietnamese for holding, a decision made in order to conserve American combat power for the fight. While the U.S. ensured the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the international community that they would implement the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam, it proved difficult to ensure that the Vietnamese would. After inspections, the ICRC informed the U.S. that South Vietnamese prison camps were not in compliance with Geneva Conventions and that the U.S. was responsible for the prisoners it had transferred. The U.S. had to react quickly to immediately develop and implement a detainee operations plan.In 1965, the U.S. assumed control of about 5,000 POWs, but within only two years, the population nearly tripled and continued to grow exponentially. This conflict emerged as a cautionary lesson that Americans cannot abdicate responsibility for their own detainees, even if we have entrusted custody to a partnered nation. The U.S. will ultimately be responsible for our own prisoners and the global public will hold the U.S. to a higher standard of conduct.In Iraq and Afghanistan, the detainee population was more complicated because of the legal context of the adversaries as primarily nonuniformed combatants designated as detained persons. A large-scale counterinsurgency exacerbated the planning shortfalls to forecast detainee populations. The realization of a much larger-than-anticipated population did not generate an immediate response to redirect capacity and funding to accommodate. Inadequate cultural understanding and limited linguistics support continued to be a problem for the U.S. In Iraq, the invading coalition forces did not have information on projected capture rates, and, among other blind spots, did not have intelligence regarding the detainees’ health. The high rate of tuberculosis among Iraqi detainees exposed coalition handlers to the disease and increased the risk of contagion in the detention camps. This information gap increased the risk for detainees, handlers, and guards. Inadvertently, population mismanagement allowed detainee populations to become fertile ground for insurgent, extremist, and criminal recruitment. Detainee operations have been an unavoidable and complicated aspect of the Global War on Terror and subsequently have been linked to political and security repercussions that influence national policy.Despite the progression of warfare and technology, detainee operations have had consistent commonalities in the U.S.’ approach. While the detainee population has trended downward in counterinsurgencies in comparison to LSCO, the security and support requirements remain the same. By underestimating the captured population, along with subsequent logistics requirements and legal challenges, the U.S. military has struggled to adequately plan for this mission.Proposed SolutionTo avoid previous experiences, planners must continually assess and predict shifts in mission requirements and incorporate projected detainee population needs as the OE changes. For the detainee operations mission, as with any other, staff must be elastic: adapt as the OE and the situation change, develop branch and sequel plans to support primary missions, and develop decision points for the commander. As the OE evolves during conflict, the enemy populations may change, too. That subsequently impacts the Army’s response to the enemy. As the environment or the mission changes, the requirements for detainee operations may change as well. For example: Indications that an enemy population carries communicable diseases can give frontline troops information and resources to protect themselves. Diseases will detract from combat power even after the enemy has capitulated.An onset of cold weather, particularly on a poorly resourced enemy population, may impact the enemy’s willingness to fight. They may more easily succumb to surrender, which would impact the operational capacity to absorb the population. If this prisoner population also has cold weather exposure and limited warm clothing, it will require both medical treatment and logistics support in response.Knowing that the enemy population suffers from malnutrition with a higher likelihood of carrying parasites should trigger different preparatory planning, such as alert a potential requirement for specific medical treatment and supplies, as well as guard considerations for custody.These requirements will have cascading impacts as the detainees move rearward on the battlefield and through support areas. Understanding the OE and the detainee operations mission allows staff to advise commanders and proactively develop plans.ConclusionThe consequences and repercussions of disorganized or reactionary detainee operations should not be underestimated or dismissed. It is a critical task of the highest military and political magnitude. In preparation for conflicts of any size, the U.S. military must plan and prepare for detainee operations. The ramifications of failing to do so are grave but avoidable. Research shows that the U.S. has consistently underestimated detainee populations, impacting the military’s ability to support the populations accordingly. Thus, it is more likely than not that current and future adversaries will attempt to exploit this trend in an effort to repeat this failure and to damage the military’s reputation, domestically and internationally.Detainee operations affect all support areas and could have much greater implications for national strategy. The U.S. Army’s dedicated attention to understand the detainee operations mission, and invest early in the planning for both security and sustainment, allows us to direct our efforts to fight and win wars.--------------------Maj. Megan R. Williams currently serves as the threats analysis officer for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, G-2 (Intelligence), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the U.S. Military Academy and a master’s degree in policy management from Georgetown University. She has completed the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy, Command and General Staff College, Military Police Basic Officer Leader Course, and Military Police Captains Career Course.--------------------This article was published in the July-September 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.RELATED LINKSArmy Sustainment homepageThe Current issue of Army Sustainment in pdf formatCurrent Army Sustainment Online ArticlesConnect with Army Sustainment on LinkedInConnect with Army Sustainment on Facebook