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The Houston Chronicle May 19, 2011

Friendly fire still one of war's hazards

By Lindsay Wise

Friendly fire continues to bedevil the U.S. military despite decades of effort to develop technology that would prevent such incidents.

The latest deadly case of mistaken identity hit close to home last month when two service members with a Houston-based reserve battalion in Afghanistan were reportedly killed by a missile fired from a U.S. Air Force Predator drone.

The deaths of Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Navy corpsman Benjamin Rast, 23, on April 6 remain under investigation, but early reports from Pentagon officials indicated that the two men were moving on foot to reinforce another Marine unit under fire near Patrol Base Alcatraz in Helmand province.

The Marines being attacked apparently saw Smith and Rast on streaming video of the battlefield relayed by the Predator, and mistook them for enemy forces.

Rast's father said it's too late for his son, but he's determined to see to it this kind of tragedy does not happen to anyone else.

"I'm not going to stop on this until I know the persons responsible are properly brought to justice, and until I know there's a 110 percent fail-safe method for identifying troops on the ground," Robert Rast said.

Friendly fire caused an alarming 35 casualties in the 1991 Gulf War -almost a quarter of all deaths — spurring calls for the Pentagon to develop new equipment and tactics that would reduce confusion over who's who on the battlefield.

Combat identification technology has evolved since then, but the Pentagon has yet to field a system that would adequately allow friendly forces to identify each other, critics say.

"Part of the problem with combat identification is that everybody gets all excited about it after the war and all kinds of programs get started, but then they run out of gas because people forget why it's important until the next (friendly fire incident) occurs, and then that cycle starts all over again," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military research firm.

No consistent policy

Friendly fire has caused at least 23 deaths during the Iraq war and 20 in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, an independent website that tracks allied fatalities.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Marine Corps officials won't say whether Smith and Rast were wearing any devices on their uniforms or helmets that would have identified them from the air as friendly forces. Such "combat identification" technology exists, but the Marine Corps has no consistent policy on its use.

Specific devices and techniques used to identify an individual Marine, vehicle or position vary by unit, mission, conditions on the ground and in-theater requirements, said Capt. Brian Block, spokesman for Headquarters Marines Corps.

Possible ways of marking a position include smoke, lasers, mirrors, heat marks, glint tape and infrared beacons, Block said.

One of the earliest accounts of such devices comes from the 1777 Battle of Germantown, when Gen. George Washington ordered his forces to put a piece of paper in their hats so they wouldn't be confused for British soldiers in the early-morning fog, said Bobby J. Cline, a retired Marine major who analyzed friendly fire for the Marine Corps.

More than 200 years after the American Revolution, U.S. and allied forces continue to rely upon devices and methods that are conceptually similar and nearly as primitive as those employed by Washington's soldiers, Cline said. They're just about as ineffective, too, he said.

"I think many Marines believe that if they've got that marker on, that they can be observed by tanks and aircraft, but that's just not the case," Cline said.

'I've been there'

Ralph Hayles, a former Apache pilot and Army battalion commander, believes the solution is an electronic system that can "interrogate" a target on the ground to find out if it's friend or foe.

"There is no equipment for those Marines to have been wearing where the drone could have positively identified them," Hayles said. "This is 2011, and we've been having these same accidents over and over and over again and there's no equipment. That's the very sad thing about this."

Hayles knows first-hand the horror of friendly fire. He mistakenly fired on American troops during the 1991 Gulf war, wounding six soldiers and killing two.

"I've been there, and I know how awful the people who call in those missiles feel, and I know those families are devastated and those two American heroes are dead," he added. "Everybody loses."

Hayles now champions a system that "interrogates" a ground target using a microwave radio attached to a weapon. Within a half-second, a cellphone-sized device carried by service members on the ground would send back an encrypted signal identifying the target by name, rank and unit.

In 2003, Hayles started a company to develop the system. He's created an early prototype with engineers from a research center in San Antonio, using funding earmarked by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio. Cornyn has requested $5 million for the project since fiscal year 2008. A total of $12 million has been appropriated so far.

Although Hayles isn't familiar with the details of the incident that killed Smith and Rast, he thinks his system could have saved their lives.

"The only way to have prevented that accident was to have positive combat identification equipment mounted in the drone and worn by those Marines and that's it, and we didn't have it," he said.

Two Air Force pilots who spoke to the Houston Chronicle said the technology now in use is basic but effective.

"It all works," an F-15 pilot said. "If it didn't work we wouldn't use it."

The pilots agreed to be quoted on the condition that their names be withheld for security reasons. They said they rely on a combination of technology, training and procedures to avoid friendly fire incidents.

"All of us realize when you press that trigger and release that ordinance, you're responsible for that decision," the F-15 pilot said. "In your mind, you need to know you have done everything you could possibly do to verify this is a legitimate target."

Tech not the only answer

The F-15 pilot said he'd like to have as much technology at his fingertips as possible, but technology itself is not the only answer. Pilots must obey strict rules of engagement. Communication and training are key. And in the end, all equipment is as fallible as the people using it, the pilot said.

Both pilots said they're trained to look for an array of "friendly" markers used by ground troops, including smoke, flashing strobes, infrared tape, reflective patches and panels. They said they can see such devices from the air, although some are more visible than others, depending on atmospheric conditions and time of day.

"I've seen glint tape, panels and beacons in several situations: with my eyes in the day time, aided by night vision goggles at night and with targeting pods using both electro-optical and infrared settings," a Predator pilot said.

But Hayles said luminous tape, reflective patches and panels can be hard to see at any distance, especially in low-visibility conditions.

"The vehicles I shot 20 years ago supposedly had panels on them and all this, but you know, it was the middle of the night, they were covered in sand, there was a storm blowing," he said. "They were just square black forms in the night sight."

 


Copyright 2011, The Houston Chronicle