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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Financial Times (London) March 22, 2003

Allies operate without the benefit of new life-saving laser technology

By Charles Clover and James Politi

When Donald Rumsfeld restructured the US military's spending priorities during his first year in office, he decided to scrap the development of a costly new laser technology intended to reduce the chances that US troops would die by friendly fire.

But now that British and US forces are poised to engage in one of the largest simultaneous ground and air offensives in history, some wonder whether that decision will come back to haunt him. Fratricide - shorthand for friendly fire in military jargon - is inevitable in most wars. But in fast-moving operations in which one side possesses most of the firepower, such as the Gulf wars of 1991 and today, the chances of it occurring are greater. "If most of the steel flying through the air is yours, there's always the chance that you'll hit one of your own," said Ivan Oelrich, the author of a 1993 congressional investigation into the 1991 Gulf war incidents and now a senior research associate at the Federation of American Scientists.

After Mr Oelrich's report, the US Army spent more than Dollars 168m and nearly a decade developing a new technology called Battlefield Combat Identification System (B-CIS).

Had B-CIS not been abandoned in 2001, it would have allowed US tanks, helicopters and some aircraft in the Gulf to distinguish between genuine enemy targets and friendly vehicles within a fraction of a second through an elaborate laser beam exchange.

Some observers, such as former Lt Col Ralph Hayles - who was involved in a fratricide incident that left two US soldiers dead in 1991, believe the failure to implement B-CIS is very dangerous.

"People are going to die because technological solutions to the problem have not been applied," he told the Houston Chronicle last month.

But the Pentagon insists that the dramatic improvements in communication technology - such as GPS satellite devices - on the battlefield should be enough to keep friendly fire deaths at a minimum.

On the ground, US and British soldiers have a great deal more "anti-frat" measures at their disposal to identify themselves than they did during the Gulf war. In that conflict, virtually the only markings friendly vehicles had was the Greek letter lamda on the side. Now, vehicles have TIPS (Thermal Imaging Protection System) panels -a black square that shows up on night vision goggles quite clearly. Soldiers have TIPS on their helmets too.

Vehicles also have infra-red "Phoenix" beacons that they can activate to alert friendly gunners using infra-red sights to their presence. Vehicles also have their serials marked in glint tape in some cases, which is also on soldiers' helmets. It can be seen only under infra-red light.

But by far the main means of preventing fratricide are the advances in fire control that allow commanders to keep track of the battlefield. Battlefield maps are cross-crossed with black "phaselines" - e.g. "Phase line Chicago" and square "kill boxes" and soldiers are expected to radio when they cross phaselines so that any kill boxes in their area are deactivated.

Featureless desert terrain makes the phaseline system a bit cumbersome, however, as there are few natural landmarks such as roads that are easily identi-fiable.

Some military analysts, including Mr Oelrich, point out that B-CIS could have been catastrophically counterproductive if a friendly tanks' receptors fell off - or if other coalition forces failed to make use of the technology.

"The gizmo was doomed," said retired Lt Col Piers Wood of globalsecurity.org, the defence policy group.

And yet, the debate over the wisdom of Mr Rumsfeld's decision to scrap the doomed gizmo is likely to be inflamed at the first sign of friendly fire in Iraq.

Copyright 2003, The Financial Times Limited