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Battling friendly fire

The military believes it is on the threshold of a breakthrough inavoiding friendly fire casualties, and it is preparing  tests on new systems that would give U.S. and allied forces the ability to recognize each other almost instantly without giving away their positions.
Media Briefing At Coalition Media Center
British Maj. Gen. Peter Wall remembering an RAF pilot brought down by an American missile in 2003.Carlo Allegri / Getty Images file

On the second night of the Iraq war, two British Tornado ground attack aircraft began their descent into Ali al-Salem airfield in Kuwait after a successful night raid on Iraqi anti-aircraft radar sites around Baghdad. The first of the two jets, maneuvering through a “safe corridor” toward its base, landed without incident. The second was blown out of the sky by an American Patriot air defense missile, killing two RAF airmen. Their deaths were the first reported fratricide or “friendly fire” of the war, and both British and American military commanders winced over the implications.

“That was a bracing event,” says retired Col. Kenneth Allard, a military analyst for MSNBC and former president of the U.S. Army War College. “There will always be incidents like this in war, of course. But a lot of changes in command and control had been made to try to apply the lessons of the first Gulf War, and shooting down an Allied plane in the first 48 hours of the war seemed a bit ominous.”

There was some basis for these fears. Some 24 percent of all U.S. combat deaths in the 1990-91 Gulf War — 35 out of 148 killed — were so-called “blue-on-blue” incidents, primarily fast moving aircraft opening fire on allied troops or vehicles. Add friendly fire deaths among Gulf War allies, including nine British troops killed by U.S. forces, and the Gulf War percentages are even worse.

Early on, the Iraq War showed signs of keeping that bloody pace. In the first two weeks of the invasion, another Patriot missile brought down an American warplane; a U.S. F-15E dropped a bomb that killed three American artillerymen; and British tanks opened up on each other, killing two of their own.

Yet early concerns about a fratricidal bloodbath in Iraq proved unfounded. While the results were not the dramatic improvement military officials had hoped for, assessments of the combat phase of the Iraq War – which the Pentagon defines as March 20 to May 2, 2003 – found friendly fire incidents had been somewhat reduced when compared to 1991 – perhaps to 18 percent of all combat deaths.

“You’re safe in saying it was lower than in the first Gulf War,” says Danny Allen, a senior official at U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., charged with developing new systems for avoiding such accidents. “However, we all recognize that it’s still a problem that even one event is too many.”

Reaching a threshold
Improvements in command and control systems, training and the deployment of primitive ‘blue force tracking” systems like reflective tape on coalition soldiers, are credited with helping to lower the friendly fire rate during the push on Baghdad. Now, however, the military believes it is on the threshold of a breakthrough in this area as it prepared final tests on new systems that would give U.S. and allied forces the ability to recognize each other almost instantly without giving away their position to the enemy.

Allen’s “Joint Fire Division” is planning a huge multi-national exercise to test new “battlefield identification” technologies. Working with U.S. military labs, a dozen defense contractors and five NATO allies, the exercise, dubbed “Urgent Quest” and scheduled for September at Britain’s Salisbury Plain training ground, involves dozens of different systems aimed at helping aircraft, artillery and tank crews, helicopter gunships and infantry quickly identify allied forces. This is the third and last field test of four major technological approaches to the problem, to be followed by recommendations that are likely to result in major purchases from some of the largest armed forces in the world, including the American military.

From lab to battlefield
None of the technologies being tested in September was available during the start of the Iraq War, according to Lt. Col. Bill McKean, the operational manager of the Urgent Quest exercises. Some, like the Battlefield Target Identification Device (BTID), are “vehicle-to-vehicle” systems, meant primarily to prevent tank-to-tank or helicopter-to-Humvee fratricide. Separate versions are in development in the U.S., led by Raytheon, and in Britain and France by contractors there.

Others rely on radio frequency technologies that “query” constantly and await a response. These systems can rely on modifications to existing radio systems carried by infantry platoons, or “query” systems using radio frequency tags to identify a friendly tank or position.

Systems that would use lasers instead of radios or satellites to verify identification, are the least developed, but have proven useful at up to 3 kilometers, says Ralph Troisio, Chief of the Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate's Combat Identification Branch at Ft. Monmouth, N.J. “We’re working to get it up to 5.5 kilometers, which is the stand off distance for an [Abrams] M-1 tank,” he says. “And we hope to have a soldier to soldier version, but that’s a few years off yet.”

All the technologies are being developed to a common NATO standard – a hugely important issue given the recent history of coalition operations. Put simply, the U.S. military is an efficient killing machine, and any other military nearby, friend or foe, invariably takes fire. British forces in southern Iraq, for instance, reported more than 30 instances of being fired on by American forces in the 12 months ending March 2005. Bulgarian, Italian and Canadian troops all have been killed in accidental attacks in the past several years. The British were so concerned that they sent several Land Rovers and uniforms to their American colleagues for instructional purposes.

There is real hope, McKean says, these new technologies can make such mistakes far less frequent. The idea is to provide commanders, pilots, tankers and eventually every soldier with a gun some degree of “situational awareness” – a mantra these days among high-tech “network centric warfare” advocates. They see the potential for turning every soldier, vehicle and aircraft into a great intelligence gathering machine, an all seeing information grid.

“All these battlefield identification technologies are complementary, not competing,” says McKean.

Laptops or PDAs?
But there are disputes between allies and even among the American services over the best way to deploy these technologies. The Marine Corps, for instance, has been testing a devise produced by Northrop-Grumman called D-DATS — “dismounted data automatic terminals” — which are basically a jarhead version of the civilian PDA. The devise displays a map of the local area and pinpoints other units in the network on the map with icons.

The Army, on the other hand, prefers the idea of arming its platoons with laptop computers — the thought being that giving each soldier a PDA could very well be more distracting than useful. “There’s still a divergence of opinion,” says Gerrit Le Grand, program development manager for Northrop-Grumman’s Missions Systems division. “It’s not an anti-fratricide system, it’s a ‘situational awareness’ system, though certainly we think they reduce fratricide. They’re still trying to decide the right level at which this technology should be deployed, and whether to go with PDA type or a notebook style computer.”

“Finding what level of information is useful to a soldier is part of our job,” says Bobby Klegg, blue force tracking branch chief at Joint Forces Command. “There’s a point at which they have too much information to look at in order to do their jobs.”

Whatever the decision, nobody involved in the effort believes friendly fire deaths can be eliminated completely. “Knowing where your own forces are is at least as important as knowing where the enemy is,” says Col. Allard. “But there will come a point where all the systems have been deployed and it all comes down to the ultimate system: the human brain. If you’re under stress and tension, and add a little fear in there, will you wait that extra one second to pull the trigger? I think it takes someone who has been in that position to answer for sure.”