WASHINGTON - Who goes there: Friend or foe?
The wrong answer to that question has become a major cause of coalition casualties in Iraq, just as it was in the first Gulf War and wars throughout the 20th Century.
On March 26, for instance, more than 30 Marines were injured when their units mistakenly fired at each other near Nasiriyah. Two Royal Air Force pilots were killed on March 23 when a U. S. Patriot missile shot down their Tornado jet fighter.
If the 1991 pattern from Operation Desert Storm repeats, friendly fire incidents - which the military terms “fratricide” - could account for almost 1 in 4 of the casualties.
Of the 613 United States military casualties in Operation Desert Storm, 146 were killed in action. About 25 percent - 35 deaths - were by friendly fire. Of the 467 wounded, 72 (15 per cent) were from friendly fire. Fully 77 percent of all combat vehicles lost were destroyed by friendly weapons.
Desert Storm's 24 percent friendly-fire toll seemed sky-high until Dr. Kenneth K. Steinweg, then with the U.S. Army War College, analyzed the conventional military wisdom that previous wars had just a 2 percent fratricide rate. His “conservative” estimates of the actual rates blamed friendly fire for 10-15 percent of previous battlefield casualties.
That means friendly-fire incidents killed or injured 250,000 soldiers in the 20th Century's wars, Dr. Steinweg concluded.
Still, Operation Desert Storm galvanized the military services into a search for new ways - electronic technologies, tactics, and training - to clear what has been dubbed “the fog of war.”
They range from electronic systems that can query and identify targets as “friendly” or “unknown” to “situational awareness” systems that instantly update battlefield positions of friendly troops and vehicles.
The systems could be placed on aircraft, ships at sea, surface vehicles, and even the gun sights of weapons carried by foot soldiers.
Dr. Steinweg warned that Desert Storm, the first truly high-tech war, could be the harbinger of even-greater friendly fire losses, with political fallout.
“Fratricide prevention must have a high priority because our fratricide rates will become a serious political and ethical issue in future conflicts,” Dr. Steinweg predicted. “Public outrage over continued high fratricide rates could make it politically impossible to prosecute a war successfully.”
In the decade since Desert Storm, several situations have multiplied the fratricide risk.
Pooling of troops and vehicles from multiple branches of the military and different countries on the same battlefield is one. In coalition warfare, it's easier for troops to misidentify friends as foes.
Weapons have become more lethal, as noted by Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, who commanded Central Air Forces in the first Gulf War.
“If an incident happened in World War II or Korea, you had a guy with a shrapnel wound,” he noted. “Now you have large numbers of killed in action and wounded in action.”
Better reconnaissance and targeting information often means attacking from great distances, where the target can't even be seen.
Military experts realized that the simplest solution - changing the “rules of engagement” – was not enough. Those rules help troops decide when to fire on an enemy.
“If you tighten the rules of engagement to the point that you reduce fratricide, the enemy begins inflicting great casualties on you,” said Maj. Bill McKean, an Army expert. “Waiting until you're sure in combat could mean becoming a casualty yourself.”
Allies continued attacking allies during the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, according to a 2002 National War College study. In one incident alone, on December 5, 2001, 26 American and Northern Alliance troops were killed and 50 injured by a “smart bomb” dropped from a B-52.
“The rapid evolution of weapons technology continues to outpace the U. S. military's capability to positively differentiate between friend and foe, and to accurately identify the precise location of desired targets,” the study concluded.
Experience in Desert Storm led all the military services to look at so-called identification of friend or foe (IFF) technology.
The Army, for instance, tested the Battlefield Combat Identification System (BCIS), which allows gunners/commanders in tanks, and other fighting vehicles to make quick shoot/don't shoot decisions. It also could be used in helicopters.
The vehicle's laser rangefinder starts the process when it probes and “interrogates” the potential target with an electronic signal.
Friendly vehicles contain an electronics box, which responds to the laser beam with an encrypted “friend” signal, visible in the gunner's sight or audible over an intercom system.
Tests showed the BCIS had a 95 percent probability of correctly identifying a friend within one second. High costs, however, stymied plans to install the system. One estimate put the price tag at $250 million for each Army division.
A 2001 congressional report recommended that the Pentagon take time to develop a comprehensive IFF blueprint so the IFF system would fit all military services.
Aircraft, of course, long have had IFF systems - transponders that broadcast a secret code signaling, “friend.”
The systems are not foolproof, as the March 23 Patriot missile incident showed. The downed Royal Air Force jet fighter had a state-of-the-art IFF system. Officials are still investigating it.
Meanwhile, troops in Iraq have adopted inexpensive, ad hoc IFF systems.
The Marines, for instance, wear credit-card size pieces of tape on their helmets and left rear shoulder of their uniforms. It reflects infrared light, and is visible through night-vision goggles used by ground forces and pilots.
Drivers sometimes tie swatches of similarly visible fabric to their roofs at night.