msnbc.com news services
updated 4/3/2003 12:29:52 PM ET 2003-04-03T17:29:52

An American A-10 “tankbuster” opens fire on British troops. A British warplane is shot down by an American Patriot missile battery near the Iraq-Kuwait border. And that was just last week. Thursday, Pentagon officials said they were looking into the possibility that one U.S. fighter jet was downed by a Patriot missile and that a second jet fired on U.S. Army ground forces. Civilians may find it difficult to understand how the most technologically sophisticated military in the world can’t prevent one of its units from attacking another. But in many ways it’s the very precision and lethality of the most advanced weapons that makes them so dangerous to friendly personnel.

“THERE ARE PORTIONS of this battle that are enormously complex, and human beings are human beings,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday. “And things are going to happen, and it’s always been so and it will be so this time — it’s always sad and tragic and your heart breaks when people are killed or wounded by (it).”

Yet such events are very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid on a chaotic battlefield crowded with both friendly and enemy units, military experts said.

“These weapons are so accurate that if you target the wrong place you’re probably going to kill the people you’ve targeted,” said Mark Burgess, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C., think-tank.

And chaotic conditions are growing more frequent in Iraq as U.S. forces bear down on Republican Guard units defending Baghdad.

PENETRATING THE ‘FOG OF WAR’Going into the Iraq invasion, U.S. military planners knew “friendly fire” could be a major source of casualties. During the Gulf War in 1991, 36 of the 148 American dead were killed by their own comrades.

This time around, friendly fire has caused five of 27 British deaths. Dozens of U.S. troops have been injured by their own forces, and the military is still investigating a potential case of fratricide in the combat deaths of nine Marines near Nasiriyah on March 23.

Since the Gulf War, several steps have been taken to improve “situational awareness,” the military’s term for knowing where you are in relation to other units on the battlefield.

The Army has a system that sends a signal from each vehicle to a communications satellite. The satellite beams each unit’s location back down to a central computer, which plots friendly vehicles on a screen in blue. Enemy vehicles spotted by field units can be plotted on the screen in red. The whole image is constantly updated and sent back out to individual units for troops in the field to see.

“It’s a tremendous tool at removing the fog of war,” said Thomas Plavcan, the Army’s deputy project manager for the system.

Unfortunately, the only U.S. unit fully equipped with the high-tech system is the 4th Infantry Division, a force that has yet to go into the field.

Another system, not yet ready for the battlefield, would employ an “identify-friend-or-foe,” or IFF, system like the ones airplanes use to keep themselves from being shot down. Each vehicle would send out a radio signal at a specific frequency, effectively telling other friendly units in the area, “Don’t shoot.” The signal would be encrypted to prevent enemies from mimicking the signal to disguise themselves as friendlies.

But such systems don’t always work. Early in the war, a Patriot missile battery shot down a British Tornado GR4 aircraft. Though it is not yet known what led to the accident, it could have been caused by a failure of the airplane’s IFF beacon or the Patriot radar’s ability to detect and identify it.

For the time being, coalition ground forces in Iraq depend mostly on various infrared “tags” affixed to vehicles that show up when viewed through night-vision goggles.

But such measures work only when they are used.

British soldiers from the Blues and Royals regiment attacked last week say they had an infrared tag that the American A-10 pilot who fired on them could have identified if he’d taken the time to check.

It’s not yet clear if that is why the A-10 pilot failed to identify his targets as allied vehicles and British and U.S. authorities are investigating the incident, along with the other incidents.

“We’ll have to investigate each one of them, see if it was a breakdown in our techniques or our procedures or if there was a technical breakdown that we have to shore up,” Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. “We’ll just keep working at it.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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