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The Los Angeles Times May 16, 2003

'Friendly Fire' Still a Problem

Despite technological advances, U.S. attacks on their own or allied forces in Iraq persisted.

By Peter Pae, Times Staff Writer

It was supposed to have been a routine "close air support operation." A group of U.S. special operations forces aiding a convoy of Kurdish fighters radioed two American fighter jets to strike an enemy tank that was firing at them about a mile away.

But instead of striking the Iraqi tank, one of the aircraft dropped a bomb on top of the convoy, killing 18 Kurds and injuring three U.S. soldiers.

Pentagon sources say the attack may have been caused by a simple mix-up: Transmitters worn by special operation forces to avoid "friendly fire" were compatible only with Air Force planes, and not the Navy jets that bombed them.

The convoy attack is one of a small group of friendly fire incidents during the Iraq war that highlight the technological advances -- and problems -- in preventing fratricide on an increasingly complex battlefield.

Although the fratricide rate in the Iraq war likely will end up as one of the lowest in modern warfare, several incidents show how prone combat still is to equipment glitches and human errors. Despite the millions of dollars the military spent since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to reduce such incidents, some of the most advanced equipment failed to live up to its promise or never made it to the battlefield because of budget cuts.

"There was a number of new low-tech combat identification systems used, but none of the high-tech stuff that was under development since the Persian Gulf War," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military research firm. "I'm sure that's going to be the subject of much discussion."

Some of the friendly fire incidents during the Iraq war include the downing of two allied jets by the U.S. Army's Patriot antimissile system, killing three airmen; the wounding of 31 soldiers in an inadvertent firefight between two U.S. Marine units; and the deaths of three soldiers near Baghdad's international airport when a military vehicle was struck by a bomb from an Air Force F-15 fighter jet.

The incidents are likely to renew debate as to how much military capabilities have improved to mitigate fratricide since Operation Desert Storm, when an alarmingly high rate of friendly fire incidents prompted public and congressional outcries. About a quarter of American fatalities in Desert Storm came at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

"Developing a combat identification system is a very nettlesome problem that a lot of people have been working on for years," said Christopher Bolkcom, a military analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "I don't know, though, if much progress has been made."

Rate of Incidence

Although the Pentagon said it does not yet have the figures for friendly fire incidents, a Times analysis of casualty reports shows that out of 151 total U.S. combat deaths, at least 15 soldiers were killed by their compatriots, a fratricide rate of about 10%. An additional 10 incidents with 20 deaths are under investigation.

U.S. forces also were involved in fratricide incidents that resulted in the deaths of at least two dozen Kurdish fighters and three British soldiers.

The fratricide rate is far lower than in Desert Storm. During that war, 35 of 147 fatalities, or 24%, were related to friendly fire. A study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1993 estimated that 15% to 20% of those killed or injured in World War II, the Korean War and the conflict in Vietnam involved friendly fire.

"I don't know what the final numbers are going to look like, but my initial impression is that we have greatly reduced [fratricide], given the tempo of these operations and the time of this campaign, when you compared it to Desert Storm," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq.

The fratricide rate for Operation Iraqi Freedom is likely to rise over the next few months as it did for Desert Storm, when the number of friendly fire deaths tripled from an initial tally of 10 to 35 as officials investigated incidents that were originally deemed accidents or casualties of hostile fire.

Ironically, the nature of modern warfare, however technologically advanced, has raised the risk of fratricide, particularly in air-to-ground combat, analysts contend. American airplanes are flying faster and higher, and carrying more lethal and precise weapons, leaving little margin for error and raising the potential for confusing friendly and enemy forces on the ground.

Advanced Targeting

Modern bombs guided by laser or satellites rarely miss their target -- right or wrong.

The F-15 incident near Baghdad airport typified the crowded and confused combat scenario in which fast-moving jets increasingly are being coordinated with ground forces, sometimes just hundreds of yards from a target.

Details are sketchy, but according to family members who were told of the incident by the Army, the three U.S. soldiers were manning a multiple-launch rocket system, which launches surface-to-surface missiles from the back of a modified Bradley fighting vehicle or a heavy truck. They were supporting the advance of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which was moving rapidly toward Baghdad. A little after midnight, they were struck by a bomb from an F-15.

An investigation is underway, but analysts said the pilot could have confused the vehicle for similar vehicles operated by Iraqi troops as the line of more than 1,000 U.S. vehicles stretched for miles across a desert.

A rudimentary "friend-or-foe" system supplied to special operations forces was supposed to help U.S. aircraft cut down on such errors. While covert and small in numbers, special operations forces coordinated much of the close air support in Iraq.

But on April 6, something went terribly wrong. According to witnesses and senior Pentagon officials, two fighter jets summoned by an Air Force special operations officer circled over the convoy several times before one of them dropped a bomb on the group of about a dozen pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The vehicles, many of them with fluorescent-orange markings on their roofs to identify them as friendly, were parked about a mile from the front line, waiting for the American aircraft to take out an Iraqi tank. But the markings may have been obscured by haze and low clouds the day of the incident, witnesses said.

A spokesman for Central Command in Qatar declined to comment about the incident, saying it was still under investigation. He also declined to confirm that the two U.S. aircraft involved in the incident were Navy F-14s.

"We want to make sure we have them properly identified," the Pentagon official said. "We're still trying to make that determination."

But sources said investigators are focusing on the cigarette-sized transmitters carried by the special operatives and whether they properly warned the aircraft, which may not have had the ability to decipher the signal.

Incompatible equipment may have contributed to several other friendly fire incidents that were not so deadly, including a nighttime skirmish between an Army unit and the Marines along the Tigris River on April 11.

Unable to communicate with each other, an Army unit on the west bank of the river exchanged small-arms fire with Marines positioned on the other side for much of the night, according to a Times reporter who was with the Marines.

Neither unit had been provided with the radio encryption and frequency codes necessary to communicate at the combat-unit level. Each service has its own codes, and the Marines and the Army soldiers needed each other's to make the link.

"The system is so damn secure, it won't let us talk to each other," a Marine officer said after the incident.

With complex weapons, any kind of a breakdown in the system -- however small -- can be catastrophic. Analysts believe such a breakdown may have led to U.S. Patriot missiles striking and destroying two fighter jets.

The Air Force is investigating the shooting-down of an F/A-18C Hornet by the Patriot missile system, killing the pilot. The Patriot system was also responsible for shooting down a British Tornado fighter jet, killing its two crew members. In a third incident, an F-16 destroyed a Patriot radar after the radar began tracking the aircraft as a possible target.

Investigators are baffled by the incidents, because the Patriots were deployed to shoot down ballistic missiles such as Iraqi Scuds and also had the most advanced navigation and targeting systems. A Pentagon source familiar with the F-18 investigation said officials are looking at a radar software glitch that mistook the aircraft for a hostile missile and a mistake by an operator who may have failed to confirm the target before launching the Patriot missile.

Low-Tech Effort

For all the talk about global positioning systems, "smart" bombs and robotic planes, the effort to keep U.S. soldiers from shooting each other during the Iraq war was actually a low-tech affair. For the most part, new equipment and technology that had been under development since Desert Storm were not used, some of it casualties of budget battles at home.

One key effort was launched shortly after Desert Storm to create an electronic combat identification system for tanks, armored vehicles, jets, helicopters and even individual soldiers. Before firing, a transmitter would seek out a coded "friend-or-foe" signal from the target.

But after spending nearly $170 million in research, the Pentagon canceled the program in 2001, saying the system was ineffective and too costly at $50,000 a unit.

Instead, the Pentagon focused on improving the ability of soldiers to know where they are in relation to other units, with the idea that better "situational awareness" would not only improve battle effectiveness but also mitigate fratricide.

The system, which the Army has been testing, allows a tank crew, for instance, to see on a laptop-like computer screen where it is and where others are. A signal sent by the tank to a satellite is beamed to a central computer, which plots friendly vehicles on a computer map and transmits the information back to the laptop in the tank.

But the only U.S. unit fully equipped with the high-tech system -- the Army's 4th Infantry Division -- mostly remained out of combat. Pentagon sources said some of the equipment was hastily added to some units in Iraq, but they were mainly used on a limited basis.

Some analysts believe that such an electronic identification system could have helped prevent several friendly fire incidents such as the attack of an A-10 antitank aircraft on a Marine unit March 23.

In the incident near Nasiriyah, nine Marines were killed and seven vehicles, including tanks, armored vehicles and Humvees, were destroyed. Marine investigators believe that four vehicles were destroyed by the Iraqis but that the fifth was "shot up" by the A-10, which had been called in to help fend off an ambush.

According to an account given to families of the Marines killed, the men were in an armored assault vehicle that was part of a unit assigned to secure a Euphrates River bridge.

Shortly after coming under attack by Iraqi troops who were apparently pretending to surrender, air support was requested. But the A-10 instead strafed the vehicle with many of the men inside.

Investigators, who are still trying to figure out whether the nine were killed by friendly fire or by the Iraqi ambush, are particularly baffled by the incident because the armored vehicle had been mounted with special thermal panels that should have identified it as a friendly force.

Tanks and vehicles were outfitted with the panels, which can be either bolted on or attached with Velcro. The panels, which do not require any power source, emit a thermal signature that can be seen at a long distance through an infrared device.

The panels are detectable through rain, fog or smoke. They are a far cry from the days of Desert Storm, when tank crews jury-rigged fluorescent sheets or painted upside-down Vs to distinguish themselves.

Soldiers On Their Own

With the exception of a limited number of special operations forces and commanders, there were no other such identification systems available for the individual soldier.

According to Pentagon documents, there were at least three friendly fire fatalities between individuals.

To mitigate friendly fire between soldiers, the Pentagon is looking at a system similar to the Identification Friend-or-Foe system found on aircraft.

A soldier aiming a laser mounted on a rifle gets a red blinking signal if the other soldier is wearing a helmet fitted with a transponder. The laser triggers the transponder to send an encoded signal back to the rifle indicating that the target is a friendly -- all within a fraction of a second.

But war historians and military strategists caution against relying too much on technology to minimize friendly fire, incidents that virtually everyone concedes cannot be eliminated.

"I would tell you that when you're fighting, for instance, in a dust storm at night in an urban area with special operation forces, conventional forces, air power, all operating in the same battle space, you are never, ever going to completely mitigate the risk of blue-on-blue fire," McKiernan said. Blue-on-blue is military parlance for friendly fire.

"That's a danger we have in this profession that no amount of technology will ever completely erase," he said.

GRAPHIC: GRAPHIC: Halting 'friendly' fire CREDIT: MARK HAFER and RAOUL RANOA Los Angeles Times


Copyright 2003, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times