U.S. military wants to stop 'friendly fire'
March 2, 2003
“Fratricide is the employment of friendly weapons and munitions with the intent to kill the enemy or destroy his equipment or facilities, which results in unforeseen and unintentional deaths or injury to friendly personnel.”
— U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
Lt. Col. Andrew Larpent was devastated twice.
The first shock came when he was told nine soldiers in his command were killed and 12 others wounded on the second day of the Gulf War ground campaign in February 1991.
He was rocked again hours later when he learned the fatal shots came from a pair of American A-10 pilots who mistook two armored vehicles from the British Royal Regiment of Fusiliers for Iraqi T-55 tanks.
“Being shot at by the enemy is part of the price you pay,” said the 25-year military veteran, now retired. “But to lose your life [to allied forces] is doubly tragic.”
Fratricide has been around as long as warfare, which has been around as long as humankind.
Put two armies against each other on the battlefield and someone will be killed by shots from his own side. You can’t have combat without fratricide, often referred to as friendly fire by the military.
The possibility another incident could occur in the Iraqi desert brings up the issue, once again.
“There’s always going to be some risk of fratricide because of the dynamics of combat,” said Col. Dennis Szydloski, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command systems manager for the Abrams tank at Fort Knox, Ky.
“Friendly fire is one of the byproducts of warfare,” said Charles Heyman, an editor for the Jane’s Defence journals and former British officer.
Fatigue, stress, confusion and fear are part of combat, and they help contribute to the fog of war — a fog filled with deadly consequences.
In 1995, the U.S. Army War College Journal cited a study estimating that 10 percent to 15 percent of Americans killed or wounded in 20th-century wars were victims of fratricide, a number between 177,000 and 250,000.
In World War II, entire companies were wiped out because of misdirected artillery bombardments. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of the deaths in Vietnam have been blamed on friendly fire.
Perhaps the most notorious friendly-fire death in American history was that of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who was accidentally shot and killed by his own troops in Chancellorsville, Va., in May 1863.
For battlefield commanders, friendly fire is one nightmare of many.
“It happens. It happens a hell of a lot more than people like to accept,” said William Nash, a retired U.S. Army major general and veteran of wars in Vietnam and the Gulf.
“I think people fail to understand the extraordinary length we went to to avoid it [in the Gulf War].”
But it was not avoided.
During Operation Desert Storm, 24 percent of the American battle deaths — 35 of 148 — were fratricide. That doesn’t include the troops Larpent commanded in the Fusiliers.
The high percentage is largely a part of the relatively low number of casualties suffered by American troops, far fewer than pre-war estimates. But the desert battlefield — a large, flat and open terrain — seemed ideal to prevent such incidents.
Nash, now an analyst for the Council on Foreign Relations, was commanding the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Armored Division in the Gulf War. He recalled two incidents. In one, a vehicle was in the wrong place, but it was identified just before another U.S. vehicle shot it. In another, a scout vehicle in advance of the brigade was incorrectly identified.
“A fellow scout put some rounds in it,” Nash said.
The enemy was also firing at the scout vehicle, so there was no way to tell who actually caused the deaths, Nash said.
The issue returned to the forefront in Afghanistan, when U.S. special forces and coalition troops were killed by allied forces.
In December 2001, three American special operation members were killed when a B-52 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb within 300 feet of the group. The bomb has a blast radius of about 4,000 feet.
Last April, two U.S. fighter pilots mistook a night live-fire training exercise for an attack. One pilot dropped a 500-pound bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers, killing four and injuring eight.
In the 17-month-long campaign in Afghanistan, dozens of servicmembers have been injured by friendly fire incidents, according to the Department of Defense.
Addressing the issue
However, while most the recent cases of fratricide have occurred because of misplaced bombs from aircraft, that is not usually how it happens. Typically, it occurs between ground forces.
“Historically, that’s where we have the biggest percentage of fratricides,” said Pete Glikerdas, acting chief of the Combat Identification Special Projects Office at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
In the past decade since the Gulf War, experts disagree on how well the issue has been addressed.
People like Glikerdas and armor soldiers say the technology has improved to give soldiers a greater idea of their situational awareness on the battlefield and a better ability to identify those around them.
Others, including Larpent, say the issue has not received enough attention.
“The number of friendly-fire casualties in the Persian Gulf campaign should have been enough to put this up at the top of the agenda,” he said. “But it wasn’t.”
He’s heard talk, he said, but seen no solution.
Christopher Langton, a retired British army colonel and head of the defense analysis department at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, said military leaders need to show more urgency in dealing with fratricide.
Also, he said, there is a tendency to rely too much on technology and not enough on training.
“Some armies — and I’m afraid the United States is one of these — [see] the technology solution over the training solution,” he said. “It should be the other way around.
“Something can always go wrong with technology. Something can always go wrong with human judgment. But you limit human error by training.”
Those in the U.S. Army familiar with American vehicles and troops that would roll across a battlefield say the troops will have both good technology and good training to rely on.
Szydloski and two noncommissioned officers at Fort Knox can rattle off a string of advancements in armor technology to help limit fratricide. And they say the issue has an increased emphasis in training.
Szydloski said the fratricide is addressed in three areas: situational awareness, training and tactics.
Global positioning systems are becoming standard in the Army’s vehicle fleet, for one, he said.
“Being able to tell people where you are makes a big difference,” he said.
Some armor vehicles have a hardware system that lets everyone on the network see everyone else on the network.
“That is not a panacea,” he said, pointing out that not everyone on the battlefield will have that equipment.
He also cited improvements in sights, which give crewmembers greater visibility on the battlefield.
Training, too, has become more realistic and greater attention is paid to fratricide incidents that happen on the practice field than when he was a lieutenant, Szydloski said.
“When it happens, these things are discussed at great length in the after-action report,” he said.
At the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., observers examine tactics devised by commanders to guard against fratricide.
“We participate in the planning process,” said Capt. Christopher Kennebeck, primary trainer for fratricide issues and control measures.
The goal is to prevent combat tactics from contributing to friendly fire casualties.
Sgt. 1st Class David Rasmussen, the noncommissioned officer in charge of armor officer basic course development, said troops who accidentally “kill” a fellow soldier in training often are required to write a letter to the “family” of the deceased to explain what happened. While no one is really hurt in the training, Rasmussen said, it serves as a reminder.
“It drives the point home,” he said.
While a point is made, the more important point is to not have the incident happen in the first place. One way trainers try to do that is through vehicle identification.
A big boost in that area is a software program that shows thermal images rather than photos of the various pieces of equipment.
“It actually shows all angles of the different types of vehicles,” said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Caporaso, a liaison NCO for TRADOC. “Whoever did that, I applaud them.”
Velcro to the rescue
But complicating matters in modern warfare is the potential presence of coalition forces that will not have the same technological wizardry as the Americans. It will not be enough to consider an unidentified vehicle as an enemy and open fire.
“You may have allies and enemies with the same equipment,” said Szydloski.
Lt. Col. Greg Butts, chief of operations for the operations group at the National Training Center, said many countries now friendly to America use Russian-built tanks that are also in the arsenals of countries not friendly to the United States.
“Now you’ve got T-72s on your left and right,” he said, as well as ahead of you in the enemy ranks.
This means the ability to tell a friendly coalition partner from unfriendly enemy is even more important — and more difficult.
“All nations should have the same capability and be able to identify a coalition force [partner],” said Glikerdas. “I don’t think we’ll be fighting too many wars alone.”
He said the need for such international technology was evident after the Gulf War because of incidents like those that killed Larpent’s troops.
“The U.S. has worked closely over the past several years with NATO member nations in performing technical studies and evaluation of technologies and their suitability for coalition operations,” he said.
One result has been NATO Standardization Agreement 4579 for a system that would identify members of a coalition on a battlefield. The United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have started building systems based on the new standard and a demonstration testing these systems is scheduled for the fall of this year in the U.K.
That may be too late for any upcoming war with Iraq. But that’s no reason to stop the effort.
“It’s not going to be the last conflict,” Glikerdas said.
In the meantime, available for the war with Iraq, if it happens, is a thermal panel, 24 inches by 30 inches, that will be placed with Velcro around a vehicle.
“They alter the signature of the platform when you look through a personal thermal viewer,” Glikderdas said.
The panels are being produced in great numbers and will be provided to coalition forces on the battlefield, he said.
But the panels are no ultimate solution. The likelihood remains that someone will die in the desert of Iraq, a victim of fratricide.
In the fog of war, mistakes will be made. And they will be deadly.
“Warfare,” Jane’s Heyman said, “is a nasty, dirty, dangerous game.”