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The Star-Ledger (NJ) May 04, 2004

Computer says, 'Friend,' and Marine doesn't fire

N.J. hosts tests of anti-friendly-fire system

By Wayne Wooley

War didn't look anything like what Marine Lance Cpl. Ramsey Smith expected.

The 22-year-old armored-vehicle gunner had been trained to shoot enemy tanks a mile away. But in Iraq, he found himself peering through gunsights at a swirling hodgepodge of vehicles ranging from tanks carrying fellow Marines to civilian cars and trucks -- some filled with people fleeing for their lives, others hauling Iraqi fighters.

Deciding whether friend or foe was in his cross hairs challenged Smith every time he was about to pull the trigger of his 25mm cannon, a weapon powerful enough to shred a car or a small building.

"You've got to know who you're shooting at," said the burly Montana native, who was part of the invasion of Nasiriya last March. "It's never easy."

Smith and 10 of his fellow Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., came to Fort Dix last week to test long-delayed technology intended to cut through some of that fog of war. The technology, called a Battlefield Target ID Device, is designed to let troops recognize in less than a second a vehicle that belongs to U.S.-led coalition forces.

Developed by Army communication specialists at Fort Monmouth in Eatontown, the system works by beaming electronic signals at every tank, personnel carrier, Humvee and civilian vehicle in the line of fire. The system "interrogates" the vehicle electronically; if it belongs to an ally, it contains a suitcase-size device that responds.

If no response is received, the system identifies the target as "unknown."

The system, which will be in tests through 2005, is designed to work on potential targets up to three miles away. System prototypes have made target identifications in less than a hundredth of a second.

"There's no thought involved. No analysis," said Robert Creighton, a project engineer at Fort Monmouth. "It's, 'I'm looking at the target -- whoa, it's a friend.'"

Reducing friendly fire has been a stated objective of the U.S. military since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when nearly a quarter of the 146 troops killed were victims of bombs, artillery or bullets fired by their own side.

The military was unable to field a high-tech solution to friendly fire in time for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. A forerunner of the Battlefield Target ID Device, called the Battlefield Combat ID System, was scrapped in 2001 after a decade of development and an investment of $175 million.

At a cost of $50,000 to outfit each vehicle, the Combat ID System was deemed too expensive by the Pentagon.

Creighton said the biggest problem, however, was that the Combat ID System was not programmed to recognize vehicles of America's allies, who were developing systems of their own. This time the coalition forces, which expect to remain in Iraq after sovereignty is handed over to Iraqis, will use the one technology. The new system is also cheaper, about half the per-unit cost of the old system, Creighton said.

A similar system is being developed to help artillery batteries, allied helicopters and ultimately bombers and fighter jets recognize friendly targets.

Some analysts question why it has taken the military so long to adopt a friendly-fire avoidance system, considering it has been a Pentagon priority for so long.

"I think the urgency wore off," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan military think tank in Virginia. "Then we got back into a shooting war and the military realized we needed it again and that they looked kind of silly canceling it in the first place."

Pike said the new technology, while a potential lifesaver for troops, is of limited use in protecting bystanders.

"Trying to tell the difference between a carload of civilians and a carload of evildoers is still a problem," Pike said.

The U.S. Defense Department says technology such as "the blue force tracker," which gives commanders constant data about friendly and enemy locations, has prevented many potential friendly-fire casualties in Iraq. Even so, friendly fire has killed at least two dozen coalition soldiers in Iraq and wounded dozens more.

Two of the worst cases took occurred during heavy fighting near Nasiriya last spring. On March 23, 2003, an Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt strafed Marines, killing 10. Four days later, 31 Marines were wounded by ground fire directed by their comrades.

The Marines who trained at Fort Dix last week were nearby in both cases.

"Friendly fire is always in the back of your mind," Lance Cpl. Caleb Green said.

The training for the Marines at Fort Dix involved computer simulators. Images of a battlefield flashed on the screens of the Marines' computers. As in other war games, the Marines fired at enemy targets and avoided friendly ones.

But unlike in other computer battle simulations the Marines had ever experienced, the Battlefield Target ID Device was part of the program. As the gunners scanned the battlefield, a throaty female voice said, "Friend," as their gun pointed at an allied vehicle. When the gun pointed at anything else, the voice said, "Unknown."

A few times when the voice piped up, the Marines chuckled. The sounds they are accustomed to in combat are the clanking of their armored vehicles, the noise of gunfire, and male voices -- usually raised to be heard above the din of battle, and often uttering profanities.

Lance Cpl. Nathan Zahn said the calm female voice will be different enough to command his attention in a firefight.

"A female voice is a lot different than your commander streaming in your ear he's always going to be a guy," Zahn said.

The female voice was incorporated as part of the battlefield identification system exactly because it sounds unlike anything else heard inside an armored vehicle in the middle of battle, Creighton said.

The Marines said they hoped the system is adopted by the U.S. military and its allies.

"If it works, it will save lives," said Pfc. Chet Allen. "It's the way to go."


Copyright 2004, The Star-Ledger