Fratricide means killing friendly forces. The lack of coordination between friendly forces, the inability to distinguish friend from foe, and the stresses of combat on troops with little combat experience are major factors causing fratricide. In each war, especially those that occurred during the twentieth century, a significant number of soldiers have been killed or wounded by friendly fire. Under NBC conditions, the risk of fratricide greatly increases.
Nearly a quarter of the casualties that American forces experienced during the Persian Gulf War were the result of friendly fire. Thirty-five of the 148 Americans killed (21 soldiers and 14 marines) were officially listed as killed by friendly fire in Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM.
The emotional impact of fratricide can be more destructive to a unit's morale and ultimately its fighting capacity, than the actual impact on combat power. Leaders must avoid this needless loss or life and combat power. What is fratricide? What are its causes? How can we reduce the risk of casualties to friendly fire on the fast paced, decentralized battlefields of the future?
Anyone who has not experienced the degree of fear and uncertainty that accompanies combat cannot understand the true dimension of the problem of "friendly fire." Fratricide has occurred in every war. Americans have mistakenly killed their own forces in all our wars.
Factors that Cause Fratricide
INEXPERIENCED, GREEN TROOPS
Of all the reasons for fratricide, inexperience is the most deadly. Inexperienced troops are more likely to be the target of friendly fire.
POOR SITUATIONAL AWARENESS
- Land Navigation Failures. Never easy, navigation is often complicated by difficult terrain or weather and visibility. Navigation problems can cause units to stray out of sector, report wrong locations, become disoriented, or employ fire support weapons from wrong locations. As a result, friendly units may collide unexpectedly or engage each other erroneously.
- Reporting, Crosstalk and Battle Tracking Failures. Commanders, leaders, and their CPs at all levels often do not generate timely, accurate, and complete reports or track subordinates as locations and the tactical situation change. Commanders are, therefore, unable to maintain situation awareness. This distorts the picture at each level and permits the erroneous clearance of support fires and violations of danger close.
- Known Battlefield Hazards. Unexploded ordnance, unmarked and unrecorded minefield, FASCAM, flying debris from discarding SABOTs or failure to mark, record, remove hazards, or otherwise anticipate the threat leads to casualties.
INADEQUATE FIRE CONTROLS
- Inadequate Fire and Maneuver. The supported unit may fail to disseminate the minimum necessary maneuver and fire support control measures to coordinate activities on the ground. Units fail to tie control measures to recognizable terrain and events or, where necessary, create a recognition feature. Improper use or inconsistent understanding can likewise make control measures ineffective. As the battle develops, the plan cannot address obvious enemy moves as they occur and synchronization fails.
- Fire Control Failures. Defensive and particularly offensive fire control plans may not be developed or may fail in execution. Some units do not designate target reference points, engagement areas, and priorities. Some may designate, but fail to adhere to them. Weapons positioning can be poor, and fire discipline can break down upon contact.
- Violating Rules of Engagement. Lapses in unit and individual discipline or violations of the Rules of Engagement allow errors that are not merely accidents. Examples are out-of-sector engagements, unauthorized discharges, mistakes with explosives and hand grenades, charge errors, incorrect gun data and similar incidents.
COMBAT IDENTIFICATION FAILURES
- Vehicle commanders, gunners and attack pilots cannot distinguish friendly and enemy thermal and optical signatures near the maximum range of their weapons systems. However, our tactics lead us to exploit our range advantage over the enemy. During limited visibility or in restricted terrain, units in proximity can mistake each other for the enemy due to short engagement windows and decision time.
- We do not have a means to determine friend or foe, other than visual recognition of our forces and the enemy's. When the enemy and our Allies are equipped similarly, and when the enemy uses US equipment, the problem is compounded.
To reduce fratricide in combat, units must conduct effective direct fire planning, clear their indirect fires, conduct thorough preparation and have excellent discipline. Other factors that can decrease fratricide casualties include standard operating procedures that designate dedicated "challenge" radio frequencies and pyrotechnic signals. Increased training emphasis on air and ground vehicle recognition is vital. Technical means of identifying friend from foe will soon aid in this effort but are not the sole solution.
DIRECT FIRE PLANNING
The quality of the direct fire planning is central to reducing fratricide. Clear plans and graphics are critical. CTC studies conducted since 1985 show that the inadequate control of direct fire systems during the execution phase of the battle is a major factor of fratricide.
Studies indicate that the overriding problem at task force level is the lack of integration of direct fire planning into the scheme of maneuver. Direct fire control measures play a vital role in this effort. Commanders should employ direct fire control measures that specifically assist in the prevention of fratricide. Engagement areas and no fire areas are an example of this type of control measure.
In addition, commanders should consider employing precise weapons engagement instructions. Air defense weapons, for example, use weapons control measures (weapons tight, hold, free and so on) to reduce friendly fire. Finally, units should employ designated signals, such as flares, to start, shift, lie and stop fires.
CLEARANCE OF INDIRECT FIRES
In past wars, artillery fratricide was a major killer. The small number of indirect fire fratricide casualties during Operation Desert Storm may not be representative of future conflicts.
Historical evidence suggests that indirect fire fratricide is still a major concern. FM 6-20-40, which covers the doctrinal concepts necessary to reduce fratricide due to artillery, says that the maneuver commander "has the final authority to approve [clear] fires and their effects within his zone." Normally, he delegates this authority to his fire support officer (FSO). When fires are targeted outside the commander's zone or sector, the FSO must make every effort to clear those fires with the commander or FSO who owns the zone. This type of coordination is crucial in reducing indirect fire fratricide.
Every soldier must know the plan and must understand the commander's intent and the friendly situation. Too often, commanders and staff officers put all of their energy into creating a plan and not enough energy into ensuring that the preparation phase of the operation is conducted to standard.
Commanders must rehearse unit direct fire plans and control measures. Rehearsals make sure that the mission, intent and scheme of maneuver are understood by every soldier in the unit. If you don't rehearse it, it probably won't happen. The time invested in this process will make direct fire weapons more effective and act to reduce fratricide.
The ground-to-ground and air-to-ground weapons systems that proliferate on today's battlefield require soldiers to make split-second decisions without the opportunity for certain identification.
To shoot or not to shoot is the question. Ultimately, it is the discipline to decide whether to pull the trigger or not that counts. Numerous incidents occurred during Operation Desert Storm in which fratricide was avoided. Discipline and strict fire control were the key in every situation in which fratricide was avoided.
US forces killed their own in the Persian Gulf at a rate four times higher than in previous wars. The short duration of the war and the fast pace of operations may have been the reason, or this increased rate may reflect the realities of a more lethal battlefield. New antifratricide technologies may help to reduce casualties, but the heart of the matter boils down to better training.
We have discussed some of the primary causes of fratricide and the consequences of adverse preconditions and contributing factors. The following will assist in minimizing fratricidal engagements.
Address fratricide contributing factors, preconditions and other elements operational risk early in and throughout the decision making process. You the leader must develop your concept for accomplishing a mission based on the commander's guidance, including the commanders intent. Following the initial METT-T analysis, the commander will state where and to what extent he is willing to accept risk. The commander will refine guidance throughout war gaming, order development, rehearsals and execution. As part of accomplishing the mission while preserving combat power, the commander should eventually identify and incorporate all necessary risk-reducing measures. Table K-1 is a decision aid to help you to evaluate risk of fratricide.
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