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Friendly Fire: Reducing The Risk Of Future

Friendly Fire: Reducing The Risk Of Future

Battlefield Tragedies


CSC 1992


SUBJECT AREA Warfighting



91 - 92


Friendly Fire: Reducing the Risk of Future Battlefield Tragedies






Title: Friendly Fire: Reducing the Risk of Future

Battlefield Tragedies


Author: Lieutenant Commander Danny A. Shockley, United

States Navy


Thesis: Developing a means to reduce the likelihood of

firing on friendly forces for future conflicts is a problem

worthy of our full attention; the solution may be found by

improvements in three areas: training, technology, and



Background: Throughout history, probably no major conflict

has escaped the tragedy known as friendly fire. Countless

incidents have been documented. First, and of greatest

significance, the problem deserves our attention because it

is such a tragic event. But it is also important because

friendly fire incidents contribute to destroying our

national will and to disrupting our operational

effectiveness on the battlefield. The causes of friendly

fire may be categorized as either human or technological.

The obvious solutions are to conduct better training and to

obtain new technology, but Congress and military leaders

have given a low priority to the friendly fire problem in

the past. This is due to the public's lack of information

regarding the causes of the problem and to the military

leaders' attitude that friendly fire is just a battlefield

fact of life.


Recommendation: Realistic training and new technology will

help to reduce the risk of future friendly fire. The key to

obtaining the support to buy new technology and better

training equipment is through the education of both the

public and the military leaders. The combination of an

educated general public and an enlightened military

leadership should provide the support, as well as the

impetus, to pursue new technology and to achieve effective

training programs. This will help to reduce the risk of

future battlefield tragedies.



Friendly Fire: Reducing the Risk of

Future Battlefield Tragedies






Thesis: Developing a means to reduce the likelihood of

firing on friendly forces for future conflicts is a problem

worthy of our full attention; the solution may be found by

improvements in three areas: training, technology, and



I.                U. S. friendly fire history


A. Civil War example

B. World War I example

C. World War II example

D. Korean War example

E. Vietnam War example

F. Persian Gulf War example


II.            Importance of solving friendly fire


A. Tragic loss of life

B. Adverse affect to national will

C. Adverse affect to combat effectiveness


III.        Reasons for friendly fire


A. Human

B. Technology


IV.            Solutions to reduce friendly fire


A. Improve training

B. Improve technology

C.                Educate participants


1. Inform the public

2. Enlighten the military leaders






The death of a soldier during battle is a tragedy.


However, the anguish is even greater and more far-reaching


when the soldier is mistakenly killed by his comrades.


Throughout history, probably no major conflict has escaped


this grave occurrence known as friendly fire. Countless


incidents have been documented



In 1863, General "Stonewall" Jackson completed one of


history's greatest marches around the flank of the Union


troops at Chancellorsville. Jackson went scouting, as he


often did, forward of his battle line at twilight. After


determining the location of the Yankee's defensive line, he


turned and hurried back to order an attack that might seal


General Hooker's doom. Suddenly, several shots were fired


from the Confederate lines. Jackson's mount,


uncharacteristically, broke into a panic. A kneeling line


from the 18th North Carolina opened up with their `smooth


bore Springfield muskets. Jackson was fatally wounded by


three Confederate musket balls. (2: 339-347)



The moss prevalent occurrences of friendly fire during


World War I were from artillery fire. A combination of poor


communications, poor survey and fire control, and the sheer


volume of artillery (called for by tactical doctrine of the


day) resulted in what was described as an "outright massacre


of friendly infantry by its own artillery. " (9: 2)



Late July 1944 -- Operation COBRA was launched in


France, with air support provided by the Eighth U. S. Air


Force. In spite of General Bradley's desire for the bombing


runs to be made parallel to the front lines, the Eighth Air


Force insisted the approaches be made at right angles to the


target area to minimize exposure to German anti-air


defenses. Seventy-five U. S. heavy and medium bombers


accidentally dropped hundreds of bombs on U. S. infantry and


mechanized units at positions up to seven miles north of the


target area. The result was 111 killed and 490 wounded.


(1: 228-236)



Before dawn on 17 April 1953, King Company and Love


Company attacked Pork Chop hill simultaneously from two


different directions. Just as King Company reached the top


of the hill, they came under an intense machine-gun fire


opened up by two soldiers from Love Company. King Company


quickly realized that the fire was coming from U. S.


soldiers but all attempts to signal the Love Company


soldiers failed. The machine-gun fire was only silenced by


the death of the Love Company soldiers. (9: 97)



On February 17, 1970, Charlie Company took a night


defensive position on a wooded hilltop in Vietnam. Shortly


after midnight, artillery fired a high explosive round over


Charlie Company's position in order to hit an intended


target area. The fire direction center failed to calculate


correctly for the tree heights of Charlie Company's hill.


The high explosive round hit a tree, killing 2 members of


Charlie Company. (3: 351-362)



On January 29, 1991, Iraqi armored units crossed the


Saudi Arabian border and engaged U. S. forces. A section of


U. S. Air Force A-10s checked-in and destroyed two Iraqi


armored units. A second section of A-10s checked-in and


released missiles after some initial difficulty in acquiring


the target. The AGM-65 Maverick missile suffered a


malfunction and struck a Marine LAV-25. Seven marines died.


(8: 6) (10: 4)



Tragically, a ccmmon thread through the history of war


is friendly fire. Developing a means to reduce the


likelihood of firing on friendly forces for future conflicts


is a problem worthy of our full attention. As retired U. S.


Army Colonel D. H Hackworth stated in a recent Marine Corps


Gazette article, "It's the duty of those who will never


forget the loss of a Soldier or Marine killed by their own


fire to ensure that it (receives the closest attentions.


(5: 48)



Reducing friendly fire is important for several


reasons. The most obvious reason is that friendly fire


represents a tragic loss of life. Sergeant Michael Mullen


died in his sleep from friendly artillery fire on a hill in


Vietnam in the early morning hours on February 18, 1970.


Understandably, Sergeant Mullen's parents were devastated by


the loss of their son, But when Michael's mother, Peg


Mullen, was told her son's death was the result of friendly


fire she was outraged. Peg Mullen glared at the sergeant


delivering the news and beat her fists on a the back of a


chair in frustration exclaiming, "Not the enemy! Goddamn


you! You couldn't even give him the . . . the decency of


being killed by the enemy!" (3: 51-52) The friendly fire


deaths of the Persian Gulf war are even more anguishing


because they represent such a large part of the total U. S.


combat deaths. In theory, the intensity of fire power that


caused the friendly fire deaths also saved hundreds of other


lives by bringing the ground war to a quick end. However,


this theory is difficult for the American public to accept.


(7: 23)



Preserving the national will is another reason to


reduce the risk of friendly fire for future conflicts. The


frustration exhibited by Mrs. Peg Mullen is a typical


reaction to this unexpected event. And it is truly


unexpected. When loved ones go to war, people prepare


themselves for a potential loss, and if notified their loved


one has died, generally expect to hear how he/she died while


fighting the enemy in a courageous and valorous action --


the way deaths are depicted in World War II movies. It is


as if such an action justifies the death. But when


presented with the news that their loss was caused by


friendly fire, the death takes on an even more negative


connotation, almost shameful or meaningless, and as Peg


Mullen stated, denies a soldier the dignity of being killed


by the enemy. Friendly fire fuels adverse public opinion on


the home front, which may in turn affect one of the most


vulnerable centers of gravity of the United States -- the


national will. Minimizing friendly fire incidents should


help to keep this center of gravity intact.



A third reason to reduce friendly fire is to prevent


the degradation of operational effectiveness on the


battlefield. Friendly fire is not only devastating to


family and loved ones, but it also touches combat troops


When asked about the friendly fire casualties of the Persian


Gulf War, former Commandant of the Marine Corps and recently


retired General A. M. Gray said, "It breaks your heart when


it happens." Likewise, the leaders on the battlefield are


similarly affected by friendly fire casualties. (5: 46-48)


These casualties may deal a crushing blow to the morale of


the affected unit, and other units in the theater of


operations. The tainted battlefield hinders the close and


continuous coordination that is essential to successful air-


land operations. The result is a disruption to operational


tempo and effectiveness.



Friendly fire is a perplexing problem. Each friendly


fire incident contains a unique bet of circumstances that


are difficult to model or simulate. One way to approach the


problem is to examine the two factors which contribute most


to the continued existence of friendly fire.



The first factor to consider is the human element,


which includes traits such as inexperience, fear, stress,


and carelessness. These human traits, combined with a


noisy, smoky, dark, and rainy battlefield create the often


mentioned, but not fully understood, "fog of war" situation.


Colonel Hackworth articulates the battlefield calamities


resulting from the "fog of war" in his Marine Corps Gazette





Accidents occur on the modern battlefield because

terrified human beings are thrust into total chaos

on a jet-driven rollercoaster. The earth is

rocked by exploding shells, bullets cut through

the smoke-filled air like razor winged-tipped

bees, and people scream amidst the insanity of the

noise while killing and being killed. Frequently,

identification of friend and foe is limited by

poor battlefield visibility, by both sides wearing

the same green and camouflage uniforms, or by

everyone hunkering down to present the smallest

target to get out of harm's way. No one is

rational under these uncertain conditions, where

adrenalin is pumping at an explosive level.

Survival, man's basic instinct, is at stake. Life

and death decisions must be made in a split

second. Like in the gunfights of high noon, the

slow gun dies. The quick and fast live. Fear,

nervousness, excitement, and exhaustion numb the

mind and cause miscommunication and

misunderstandings. These circumstances are a

recipe for error. (5: 46)



It is the human element that causes many people, especially


military leaders, to shrug their shoulders and to accept


friendly fire casualties as a fait accompli -- just a


battlefield fact of life. (4: 45) However, the human


element was a contributing factor in at least 11 of the 35


U.S. friendly fire deaths during the Persian Gulf War and


may have had some influence in all of the deaths. (10: 3-4)



A second contributing factor is improved technology.


Modern technology enables large, complex and fast-moving


formations to fight in rain, darkness or low visibility and


engage targets from long distances with accurate and lethal


results. This technological advance contributes to quick


and decisive victories. The dilemma is that these new


capabilities have pushed us into a new kind of warfare from


that traditionally considered, making it more difficult to


distinguish friendly units from enemy units and making it


more likely that the result will be fatal. Again, from


Colonel Hackworth's article, the following is an excellent


account of this dilemma:



Warfare has changed. No longer do opponents line

up behind two clearly definable neat lines and

bang away at each other. Modern American war-

fighting is now frontless and emphasizes night

attacks with heavy doses of firepower, fast

maneuvering, and deep penetration. No longer do

units slam against each other until one side

gives, as they did in World War II. The objective

is to go for the jugular, to grasp quick victory

and thus minimize friendly casualties. This is

done by high-speed shock action that quickly

slices through enemy forward defenses into his

soft belly, and cutting up his command and

control, logistics, and artillery. These highly

fluid and fast-moving operations require detailed

coordination as friend and foe are tightly

intermingled. (5: 46)



Lieutenant General Charles A. Horner says that the


consequences of accidental attack on friendly forces is more


serious than ever, "we're not just talking about a few


pieces of shrapnel... with the lethality of air (power) now,


a hit on a friendly vehicle is a disaster. " (6: 24)


Advanced technology was a contributing factor in 24 of the


35 U. S. friendly fire deaths during the Persian Gulf War.



The solution to reducing future friendly fire incidents


may be achieved by improvements in three areas: training,


technology, and education. The first two areas, training


and technology, are obvious solutions. Training will entail


the preparation of soldiers in a simulated but realistic


battlefield environment in order to reduce the human error


factor. Technology will embrace new developments that


should help to reduce the risk of friendly fire occurrences


by closing the gap between fire power capabilities and the


ability of command and control systems to coordinate the


battlefield. The final area, education, is the foundation


to effectively implementing the required initiatives in the


areas of training and technology. It will seek to motivate


the general public, to change the fait accompli mentality of


military leadership, and to gain support for programs


designed to reduce future occurrences of friendly fire.



Training specifically tailored to correcting human


failings such as inexperience, fear, stress, and


carelessness is required. During the Vietnam War, the


failure of forward observers to correctly plot their own


position and correctly shift supporting artillery fires was


a major cause of friendly fire incidents. The errors were


attributed to individuals having to perform under severe


combat stress. (9: 16-24) Therefore, in order to be truly


effective, the training should be as realistic as possible,


using simulated battlefield surroundings. Hitting a target


on a firing range in a controlled environment is one thing;


hitting a target, the right target, in the midst of smoke,


explosions, and darkness is something quite different.



As previously stated, modern technology enables large,


complex and fast-moving formations to seek quick and


decisive victories in low visibility with accurate and


lethal firepower. This technological advance contributes to


quick and decisive victories. The dilemma is that new


capabilities make it more difficult to distinguish friendly


units from enemy units and more likely that a friendly


firing will be fatal. Simply put, we have allowed the


capabilities of our weapons to outrun our capacity to


control and coordinate them. Or, in economic terms, weapon


system development has reached the point of diminishing


returns, at least until technology provides new systems


designed to reduce the risk of friendly fires.



The greatest gains -- and perhaps the area with

the greatest potential for future technological

development -- is in command and control. These

systems decrease fratricide by controlling the

problems associated with command and control and

misidentification of friendly forces as enemy.

(11: 48)


These new systems could possibly map the location of all


friendly forces in the theater of operations (perhaps by


utilizing the Global Positioning System) and disseminate the


information to everyone involved in real time, enhancing


command and control capabilities in order to better


coordinate the battle. Research and development should


focus on new ways of increasing combat effectiveness. This


can be achieved by shifting technological emphasis away from


improving weapon systems capabilities and directing emphasis


towards reducing the likelihood of friendly fire.


Finally, we must consider the peacetime level of


interest in correcting the problem. Research and


development programs directed towards reducing friendly fire


occurrences have never received a high budget priority, and,


as a result, research into this approach has only skimmed


the surface for possible solutions. In addition, the Army


document describing future combat situation requirements,


the Battle Development Plan, fails to even address the


problem of friendly fire. (4: 46) Why is it that


searching for solutions to such an emotional topic is not


given a higher priority by our Congress and military


leaders? Two reasons for this reluctance come to mind.


First, the general public, for which Congress works, is


provided little or no facts regarding the causes of friendly


fire. Second, the prevailing attitude among some military


leaders that friendly fire is a battlefield fact of life.


Key to alleviating these two conditions is the education of


the general public and military leaders An internal and


external public relations job is needed.



The public knows little about the causes of friendly


fire. Only the results -- the deaths -- are publicized.


The military exacerbates the situation by deceiving the


public, giving the appearance of a cover-up. A recent Army


Times editorial describes this situation:



Families were told soldiers died as a result of

hostile fire, only to find out months later --

sometimes from other soldiers, sometimes through

published reports -- that the cause of death

actually was friendly fire. Such lies are

inexcusable. (7: 23)


Openness and candidness are required. Accurate information


should be provided a- boon as possible and should describe


the causes of the friendly fire occurrences. In addition,


the battlefield conditions -- the human factor and the


technological gap -- should be publicized. Once the reasons


for friendly fire occurrences are understood, the public


will be more inclined to support the military rather than


hold them in contempt for face-saving cover-up attempts.


The public will then rally Congressional support behind


initiatives aimed at reducing future friendly fire


occurrences. Perhaps then proposals for more realistic


simulation training and new research and development


endeavors will receive desirable levels of funding.



Military leaders are the victims of too much


information, or maybe are just too close to the problem.


While keenly aware of the conditions and causes of friendly


fire, their overriding attitude is that friendly fire is


part-and-parcel to war. It is not that they fail to take


the problem seriously or do not take every measure on the


battlefield to prevent this tragic event. But there is a


mentality, off the battlefield, that is so pervasive that it


prevents the acceptance of new training initiatives to


reduce friendly fire. These military leaders may go through


the motions but in their hearts they are not convinced the


new measures will make a difference. The fait accompli


attitude perpetuates itself as it is passed along from


seasoned veterans to new recruits. A simple change in


attitude may go a long way toward reducing friendly fire in


future conflicts.



Friendly fire is a tragedy that can devastate the


operational effectiveness on the battlefield and destroy the


national will on the home front. The combination of an


educated general public and an enlightened military


leadership should provide the support, as well as the


impetus, to pursue new technology and to achieve effective


training programs. This will reduce the risk of these


battlefield tragedies for the future.






1. Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. U. S. Army

in World War II,vol. 3, pt 5. Washington D.C.:

Office of the Chief of Military History,

Department of the Army, 1961.


2. Bowers, John. Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a

Soldier. New York: William Morrow and Company,

Inc. ,1989.


3. Bryan, Courtlandt Dixon Barnes. Friendly Fire. New

York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.


4. Hackworth, David H. "Killed by their Comrades."

Newsweek, November 18, 1991, 45-46.


5. Hackworth, David H., Colonel, U. S. Army (Retired).

"Friendly Fire Casualties." Marine Corps Gazette,

March 1992, 46-48.


6. "Horner Underscores Tragedy of Friendly Fire. Air

Force Times, June 3, 1991, p. 24.


7. "Inexcusable Lies. " Army Times, November 25, 1991, p.



8. "Investigators Detail Fatal Errors in Gulf War."

Albany Times Union, July 21, 1991, p. 6.


9. Shrader, Charles R., Lieutenant Colonel, U. S. Army.

Amicicide: The Problem of Friendly Fire in Modern

War. Fort Leavenworth: Combat Studies Institute,

U.S. Army Command And General Staff College,

Research Survey number 1, 1982.


10. U.S. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense

(Public Affairs). News Release number 504-91,

"Military Probes Friendly Fire Incidents," August

13, 1991.


11. Wiltse, Jeffrey S. "Training to Prevent Fratricide."

Armor. July - August 1991, 46-48.


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