Podcast: BG David Mendelson on “LOAC in 21st Century Battlespaces”

Each year at our annual conference we have a top speaker present a leadership address, and this year we were honored to have the extraordinarily charismatic BG David E. Mendelson, USA, Assistant Judge Advocate General for Military Law and Operations.

I’m pleased to tell you that the video of his very energetic presentation is now available here as part of the podcast series from the 29th Annual National Security Law Conference sponsored by Duke’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security (LENS).

BG Mendelson entitled his presentation “LOAC in 21st Century Battlespaces”  (“LOAC” stands for Law of Armed Conflict), and he addressed (in an extremely engaging way!) some key issues facing military legal advisors in the 21st century. 

Here are a couple of excerpts from this terrific speech:

BG Mendelson began by readily acknowledging the difficulty of predicting (and planning for) future conflicts because of the many variables, particularly because the “enemy gets a vote.” In assessing what are the judge advocate (JAG)”non-negotiables” he said:

Number one…is our ability to advise them or the senior leaders is paramount, our ability to be with them in person, so they have access to us and we have access to them. And that client, that attorney-client relationship, that commander-judge advocate relationship, it is special.

In recounting the history of JAGs’ involvement in operations, he observed:

Eventually in time, through advocacy and persuasion, [JAGs] got outside the door. And once they got outside the door, we kicked it down. And once we kicked it down and got in the room, we got at the table. And once we got at the table, and over time through Grenada and Panama, we were able to establish that we are trustworthy partners.

We’ve got a lot more than just the law to bring to the discussion. We are critical thinkers. And you get all that for free. You get all that for free. And that’s what the commanders loved about us the most and what’s opened the door to Desert Storm Desert Shield, where it really began to come together.

He later added:

We are everywhere now. Commanders have seen our value. We are at all phases of the operations plan. You will find judge advocates in the intelligence cell, right…? You’ll find them in the targeting cell. You’ll find them in the planning cell. And you’ll find them standing next to commanders. These are things we need to preserve:  the command relationship and making sure we know our craft.

The Russia-Ukraine war, he notes, shows the ability of modern militaries to strike large command posts – much because of the electronic footprint these sites emit.  Consequently, the Army has developed concepts to address this new reality:

[We’ve] essentially been able to validate three concepts with command posts as we’re moving forward. Number one, we need to break them down. Smaller footprint nodes. They need to be mobile – moving quickly in and out around the battlefield and dispersed. We have been exercising this at Joint Base Lewis-McChord: breaking up the command post, putting our leaders and commanders in smaller groupings, moving them quickly around the battlefield, coming together when need be for operations and for effects and then moving out.

He relates some of the evolving issues JAG leaders are now addressing:

BG Mendelson with some current and future Army JAGs at the 29th LENS Conference

But now we need to– again, priority number one– be where our leaders are, be in these nodes. OK, number one, it begs the question, how many nodes are needed? Number two, do I have enough judge advocates to fill all of those nodes? Let’s assume yes. Does that judge advocate… have I prepared them for the realm of legal issues that they’re going to have to advise on?

Let’s assume I don’t have enough people. So I have nodes that are uncovered. I’m not satisfied. Priority one. And again, we don’t want to go back to what happened before 1974. And we know those nodes are going to follow what our tradition is, the initiative, going to the fight.

That is our near-term issue. How do I provide well-trained judge advocates to fill these nodes to be with our leaders and do it effectively and not necessarily be able to talk to the rear? Wish me luck. But we are aware of the problem.

He then describes what might be possible solutions, including discussing the potential of artificial intelligence.

These are just a few soundbites from what is truly an amazing presentation, and you’ll want to hear more.  It is an absolute “must” for any uniformed or civilian military legal advisor, but it’s also for everyone interested in the current thinking as to how vital legal services might be delivered on complex 21st century battlefields.

Again, you can watch or listen to this masterful presentation here.

Don’t miss these other podcasts from LENS’ 29th Annual Conference :

My fireside chat with CIA General Counsel Kate Heinzelman can found here.

Brig. Gen. Linell Letendre’s presentation “Guardians of Code and Conscience: Exploring Legal and Ethical Frontiers of Generative AI” is found here.

Col (Ret.) Dawn Zoldi’s presentation “Domestic Drones and National Security,” is found here.   

Dean Cheng’s presentation “Update on China: Lawfare, Technology and More” is found here.

Gary Corn on “Attacking Big Data: Strategic Competition, the Race for AI, and Cyber Sabotageis found here.

As more podcasts from the Conference become available, they’ll be posted on Lawfire® so stay tuned! 

Unless otherwise indicated, Conference speakers are expressing their personal opinions, and not necessarily those of their employer (to include the U.S. government), the Center of Law, Ethics and National Security, Duke University, or any other person or entity (see also here)

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!



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