Limited War

By Peter Rowe 

A State may make it clear, by what its leaders say or by its actions, including unilateral declarations or bilateral agreements, that it is fighting a limited war. By this it may mean that it wishes to engage its enemy only within certain defined territory, or that it does not seek to persuade any other State to take part in the conflict as an ally, or that it does not intend to use certain weapons at its disposal, or that it intends only to destroy a certain type of military infrastructure, such as radar installations.

The armed conflict between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982 could be described as a limited war in the sense that Britain had the capability to strike at mainland Argentina but chose not to do so. No other State was involved and Britain for its part limited the conflict to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands and a belligerency zone that Britain declared around it, the purpose being to distinguish neutrals from enemy combatants. Had a Royal Navy warship come across an Argentinian warship in the Pacific during the time of the conflict it would probably not have attacked it.

International humanitarian law (IHL) applies as soon as an armed conflict occurs, even if a state of war is not recognized by any of the combatant nations. Thus, once an armed conflict occurs, the intensity or the scope of the conflict is irrelevant. The same obligations are owed by the combatants engaged in it as are owed in any other form of armed conflict between States. It follows that the concept of limited war, like total war, although of great importance for understanding the behavior of parties in wartime, is not a legal term within IHL.

In practice, however, a limited war may be intended to be of short duration. As a result it may be considered impracticable to build prisoner of war camps. Prisoners of war may therefore be repatriated during the conflict, an event which took place during the Falkland conflict in 1982. With modern weapon systems a State may have the capacity to strike with very accurate weapons at prime military objectives without any other military action being necessary. The capability of the attacked State to respond may, in consequence, be nonexistent or very limited, and the object of keeping the conflict limited can be achieved.

In all of these situations, IHL applies.

Related posts:

  1. Total War
  2. Guerrillas