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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Scotsman March 17, 2003

Twelve Years On, No Answer To The Threat Of Friendly Fire Casualties

By John Innes

THE Pentagon has produced few solutions to the problem of friendly fire, officials and analysts claimed yesterday.

This is despite the fact that the United States military deemed the number of friendly fire deaths during the Gulf war unacceptable.

In 2001, the defence department leadership terminated an army programme to equip tanks and other military vehicles with electronic devices which would enable troops to distinguish US vehicles from those of the enemy. The US army now is developing another similar system along with NATO allies, but it is only in the testing stages.

In the absence of such a system, US officials are scrambling to affix combat identification panels (which have a distinctive signature when viewed with infrared technology) on tanks and other vehicles deployed in the Gulf region.

"We are rushing into the quick-solution type of things," said a defence official.

Being killed or wounded mistakenly by troops fighting under the same flag is an age-old worry for armies. But the crowded desert battlefield of the Gulf war, in which a large coalition of nations expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, was particularly conducive to confusion and blunders.

Of the 148 US troops killed in battle in the Gulf war, 35 died in friendly fire incidents. And, of the 467 US troops who suffered non-fatal battle wounds in the war, 72 (15 per cent) were victims of friendly fire.

The Pentagon calls friendly fire casualties "fratricide." Analysts said yesterday the Pentagon has come up short in providing fresh fratricide safeguards for US troops in the field. "If you look specifically at what has been done on the friendly fire question, it appears as though not a whole lot has happened," said Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists, who wrote a comprehensive congressional report on the Gulf war friendly fire problems.

"There's just going to be an awful lot of finger pointing. They've just really set themselves up for a big one here. I just hope that there is not the orgy of recrimination that is obviously waiting in the wings," added John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org think-tank.

"But you can go ahead and write this story now: 'First Gulf war identifies fratricide as major issue; army launches major technological initiative to solve this problem; programme gets cancelled in short-sighted, foolish budget -cutting effort.'"

The Pentagon is banking on a comprehensive solution to fratricide through greater reliance on satellite data and better communications.

"Despite the comings and goings of different programmes and how different people interpret that, the broader effort has been sustained and ongoing," said another defence official.

"I don't think anyone's so optimistic to think that we'll ever be able to eliminate the fog of war and the chance of fratricide, but certainly we're making every effort to do so," the official said.

The US army spent $ 180 million (GBP 114 million) developing the Battlefield Combat Identification System until it was terminated amid concerns about cost and feasibility. The system was to have allowed a gunner to make a rapid "shoot" or "don't shoot" decision at the point of engagement.

Copyright 2003, The Scotsman Publications Ltd.