The use of kill boxes has mutated into something almost unrecognizable from the tactic’s origins at the end of the Cold War, let alone older forms of warfare. To effectively use the tactic, a military must have profound technological and logistical advantages over its enemy. Success depends on access to a web of satellites, high-tech communications equipment, pilots, and ground crews trained well enough to execute nearly constant defensive attacks. It requires more planning and specialization than, say, the kind of air war that America fought in World War II, which involved pitched battles in which specific objectives were targeted as the opportunity arose.
On January 30, 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, kill boxes were put into practice for the first time. And they worked. Destroying the Saddam Hussein’s air and ground forces was simple. Stationary kill boxes—quadrants roughly 350 cubic miles in size—were designated within specific coordinates, which military forces would patrol at regular intervals. During the Gulf War, “A single quadrant comprised an area almost equaling the size of New York City,” writes Richard Davis in Decisive Force: Strategic Bombing in the Gulf War. “These devastating and ubiquitous operations accomplished both the aerial interdiction of Iraqi supply and the destruction of Iraqi military equipment and personnel.” The Iraqi First and Third Mechanized Divisions were decimated before they even had the chance to put together a defense. Kill boxes might have been one strategic reason why the Gulf War only lasted 100 hours.
In particular, kill boxes proved an efficient way for the Air Force to dismantle opposing militaries. This worked in 1991, and again during the first years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these early stages, using a kill box required positive identification of an enemy target, a process called PID, before engaging. “We have to visually identify the target and we have to determine whether it’s a hostile [military] target. We determine that it’s not friendly by using visual recognition features and through ground elements of the nearest friendly positions,” Air Force Major Greg Defore told National Defense Magazine in 2003. In other words: Servicemen look at who or what they’re going to shoot with their own eyes before shooting to make sure the person or object is actually the part of the enemy’s military forces. “You may be 100 percent sure that a vehicle is not a friendly and still not engage. It could, for instance, be a humanitarian food truck or a farm vehicle,” Defore said.
This strategy worked well during the initial invasion of Iraq, but only because the opposing team was wearing a jersey, so to speak. It was possible to look at a truck and know whether or not it was hostile. But as a conventional war degenerated into a complex quagmire of militants engaged in guerilla warfare, that sort of certainty wasn’t possible any longer. As Major James MacGregor explains in his paper, “Bringing the Box into Doctrine: Joint Doctrine and the Kill Box,” an officer from 1918 would have, with a little help, been able to understand the maps of the Gulf War: Enemy forces are here, friendly forces over here, that sort of thing. But today, the enemy could be anyone, anywhere. This type of warfare doesn’t naturally lend itself well to kill boxes. As the American military started using kill boxes in conjunction with drones in targeted killings, it effectively grafted a strategy from the past onto the present, a la Frankenstein. The military began using kill boxes in the so-called war on terror as a technique to exert force in “ungoverned spaces,” territories that are not controlled by a state and are populated by people who might not share American cultural values. Kill boxes are only used in places that are very different from the United States; military forces would never initiate a kill box Manchester or Ann Arbor, for example, even if a suspected terrorist lived there. Too many innocent people would be killed. The innocent people living in Afghanistan or Yemen, however, are apparently judged by a different standard. And this is the moral cost of the kill box: When used widely and indiscriminately, the tactic devalues human life.