War highlights need for vehicle-ID system
Stars and Stripes June 1, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — The most significant failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom includes repeated incidents of “fratricide” because the Pentagon has yet to develop vehicle identification system to mark friendly vehicles, a senior Marine commander in southern Iraq said Friday.
Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told Pentagon reporters that “blue-on-blue fratricide” — the military’s euphemism for troops accidentally attacking each other — “was probably my biggest disappointment of the war.”
During Desert Storm in 1991, 35 servicemembers were killed in fratricide incidents and 75 more were wounded — about 17 percent of the American casualties.
Many of those incidents were attributed to the combination of fast-moving U.S. forces, sandstorms, darkness, and heavy rain, and long-range, highly lethal weapons, such as M1A1 tanks, A-10 aircraft, and the Navy’s Phalanx Close-In Weapons System.
After Operation Desert Storm, U.S. military officials vowed to lessen the number of friendly fire incidents in future conflicts.
Billions of dollars have since been spent on various combat identification projects, some for air, some for ground.
The major ground-vehicle based combat ID system to evolve from this push was the Army’s Battlefield Combat Identification System, or BCIS.
But BCIS was canceled in the fall of 2001, because at $30,000 to $40,000 per vehicle, it was too expensive, service officials said at the time.
A conversion kit to mount the unit would have run another $20,000 to $30,000.
The Army now is pursuing low-cost alternatives, but no program has yet emerged.
The Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va., also is working on experimental combat ID programs, both vehicle-mounted and man-portable, according to its Web site.
At the height of the fighting in Iraq, the 1st MEF had about 65,000 Marines pushing toward Baghdad and also in Kuwait, where the aviation and logistics elements were based, Conway said.
Before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Conway said, he told his unit commanders to give their Marines an explicit warning: Don’t pull the trigger unless there is no doubt that the enemy is on the receiving end.
“Our weapons are so accurate and so deadly that when it goes off the rail or out the tube, it’s probably going to kill someone,” Conway said.
Nevertheless, many Marines were killed and many more wounded in friendly fire incidents, including one episode at Nasiriyah in which 30 Marines were wounded (none were killed).
Conway said he could not provide exact numbers of fratricide casualties, because the incidents “are still under investigation.”
“But I will tell you one is too many,” he said.
A new technology, a Blue Force Tracker that allows commanders to see where different units are at any given time during the war, “helped some” to prevent fratricide in Iraq, Conway said.
“But what we truly need is something that can identify a friendly vehicle,” by emitting a beep, sending out a radio signal, or providing some other clear signature, Conway said. “They’ve been trying to invent that, without success, since the Gulf War,” and it still doesn’t exist.
The number of 1st MEF Marines in Iraq today has dropped to 41,000, Conway said.
Conditions in the south of Iraq, where the 1st MEF is based, are for the most part peaceful, Conway said.
“The war is now essentially over,” he said.
The Marines’ reception by the southern Iraqis “day in and day out is just tremendously positive,” Conway said.
He said that on Friday, he met with “60 or 70 sheiks from south and central Iraq,” and that they told him “they’re delighted we’re here and with the progress we’re making.”
But all is not totally peaceful.
On Thursday, a battalion of Marines conducted a dawn raid on a suspected Baath training center in the northernmost sector of the 1 MEF’s territory, Conway said.
Two Iraqis were killed in the operation and 13 were detained, including “a fairly high-ranking Baath official,” Conway said.
Marines also seized automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
“It was a fairly successful sweep,” he said.
The danger, however, is isolated to small groups of anti-U.S. Iraqis and former Baathists, Conway said.
“I really don’t think there’s anarchy in Iraq,” he said.