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ASSEMBLY AREA HAMMER — For all the firepower assembled in the massive U.S. force poised to strike Iraq, the biggest concern remains making sure the bombs hit the right targets.

“There’s no such thing as a flesh wound from a 500-pound bomb,” said Lt. Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment.

To avoid hitting U.S. soldiers, the Bradley fighting vehicles in Charlton’s unit are wired with laser targeting systems that beam information and targets back to the tactical operations center.

Call it a circle of death.

A Bradley crew spots an enemy target and lights it up with a laser sighting system. The map grid is beamed back to the tactical operations center, where it is plotted on digital and paper maps that show enemy and friendly forces.

Once soldiers are certain that no friendly forces are in the area, the firing officer gives the all clear and sends the coordinates to a Paladin mobile howitzer. The howitzer looses a round, which rains down on the target coordinates where the whole process began.

It’s a devastating process that takes only a few moments. But according to commanders and artillery officers in the field, uncoiling the U.S. arsenal will happen only when every effort is made to ensure the target is not a friendly one.

“You can’t take those artillery back,” said Capt. John Montgomery, the fire control officer for Task Force 1-15, as the combined mechanized infantry unit is called.

“Fratricide is getting worse because of the lethality and accuracy of our weapons.”

All of the battlefield systems arrayed in the Kuwaiti desert are geared around preventing a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, when 35 of the 148 U.S. combat deaths were the result of fratricide.

In Task Force 1-15, a heavy part of that responsibility falls on the Bradley crews’ ability to get information to the tactical operations center. Inside the TOC, a team of plotters charts the battlefield on paper maps and on a computer system called the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System.

It almost looks like a video game: Digital maps on a computer screen show terrain, map grids and the position of friendly forces, which are designated by small blue squares. Enemy units are noted as small red squares.

When target coordinates are sent back from the Bradleys, they are plotted on the maps and cleared as enemies. A representative of each company on the battlefield is in the operations center, keeping updated positions of their units.

“You can send graphics, text messages or actual pictures on the system,” said Sgt. Anthony Bryant, the 32-year-old assistant fire support noncommissioned officer for the battalion. “We will lay down ‘no fire areas’ where we know units like the scouts will be operating. All of our fire lanes will be coordinated.”

In addition, said Staff Sgt. Aaron Edwards, the 36-year-old fire support NCO from Oceala, Fla., the computer system will keep up-to-date information on weapons status, ammunition supply, equipment fuel status and the defensive posture of troops.

Most vehicles also are being fitted with special thermal identification panels and infrared signal lights that can be seen by attack helicopters and aircraft.

But for all the technology at their fingertips, most American soldiers have a healthy skepticism in its infallibility.

“I believe in soldiers with a map and push pins,” said Montgomery. “I do not trust the computers with lives. The bottom line is, I will not allow a fire mission unless all three command cells clear the target.

“At the distances our weapons work, there’s nothing the Iraqis can put on the battlefield that will prevent anyone from taking that extra moment to make sure of the target.”

Montgomery said he believes the Army has done “everything humanely possible to prevent us from killing each other.”

“But with that much ordnance going down range,” he added, “we are probably still going to kill each other.”

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