What the hell is going on in southern Iraq?

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Mar 25 07:23:38 MST 2003

(And then there are all those fires in the
oil installations which were still going on
as of last evening's US network news...

(And what's the difference between the
"friendly fire" and fragging of which we've
recently just heard of the initial incident?)

March 25, 2003 12:00 a.m. EST

High-Tech Gear Contributes
To Increase in Friendly Fire

Minor Mistakes Can Become Deadly
When Automated Systems Don't Miss

The U.S. and British military in Iraq are benefiting from
the best technology ever deployed in battle. Satellites can
instantly provide details of a target's location, missiles
fired hundreds of miles away can slam into a specific
window, and communication networks enable tanks,
ships and aircraft to share information instantly.

So why are there still so many friendly-fire incidents?

With the war in Iraq less than a week old, mistaken firings
by U.S. troops on coalition forces have occurred at least
three times, with at least three dead and several others
injured, not including accidental crashes that have taken
dozens of other lives. In one incident Sunday, a British
Tornado jet equipped with special transponder to identify
itself electronically as a "friend" was shot down by a U.S.
Patriot missile battery that was equipped to read just such
"identification friend or foe" signals. In another incident,
a U.S. Marine Cobra helicopter fired Hellfire missiles at
two Marine tanks, setting one. aflame but not injuring

Military officials say such mistakes are often unavoidable
in what they dub the "fog of war." That is particularly true
in coalition warfare, where troops and equipment from
several branches of the military and multiple countries are
pooled on the battlefield. Where there used to be "front
lines," which were supported by organized forces in the
rear, war plans today tend to mix a number of assets from
various services that are unaccustomed to working together.
At the same time, enemy forces increasingly attempt to
capitalize on this confusion by seeking to blend in before

"You've got a fluid battlefield where U.S. forces seek to
capitalize on their own agility," says John Pike, executive
director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research group. The
problem, he adds, is that moving around the battlefield
quickly so the enemy will have a difficult time responding
"is getting our own forces confused as well."

An abundance of highly automated weapons that boost the
"situational awareness" of an individual pilot or ground
warrior was supposed to cut down on deadly mishaps. But the
number of friendly-fire incidents, also known as fratricide,
has actually increased in recent wars. Some military
officials suggest that the equipment itself may be pushing
those rates higher. More advanced radar and reconnaissance
technology make it possible to detect targets at ranges that
were previously too distant. That can make it impossible for
a human to get a positive identification before firing
weapons that are increasingly guided by Global Positioning
System satellites providing precise latitude and longitude

During the recent war in Afghanistan, American pilots for
the first time "were dropping the majority of their ordnance
'on coordinate,' without obtaining 'eyes on target' combat
identification," according to a June 2002 report on
fratricide produced by three military officers for the
National War College.

The result: several high-profile friendly-fire incidents. In
December 2001, a B-52 bomber killed three U.S. Special
Forces soldiers and 23 Northern Alliance fighters. It also
almost killed the Afghan Interim Authority leader, Hamid
Karzai. In April 2002, four Canadian soldiers were killed
and eight others were injured in a bombing raid by two
American pilots near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Even earlier, though, in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the rate
of fratricide was already notable -- and, according to some
military studies, higher than in previous wars in the 20th
century. Of the 148 Americans killed during that conflict,
which was considered the U.S. military's first
high-technology war, 35 were hit by friendly fire. Nine
British soldiers also were killed when two U.S. A-10
aircraft mistakenly fired on their armored personnel

Fratricide is a particular problem among ground forces
operating in harsh climates, like the mountains of
Afghanistan and the sandstorm-prone plains of Iraq.
Breakdowns, broken antennas and communication-system
failures all contribute to problems discerning allies from
enemies, says Randy Gangle, executive director for the
Marine Corps's Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities
at Quantico, Va., and a retired Marine colonel. "Plus,
humans flat out make mistakes," he says.

And despite the Pentagon's emphasis on better coordination
among the military services in a war theater, so far they
haven't had much real practice in putting the concept to the
test. Air Force pilots still practice among their own, as do
Army soldiers, Marines and other branches of the service.
And while more joint training has been undertaken in recent
years, such exercises remain infrequent because they are

Technology has been developed to cut down on mishaps. These
systems work by putting transponders on various vehicles
that can automatically transmit a secret, frequently changed
numerical code that identifies the vehicle as a "friend."
Enemy aircraft wouldn't know the code. Most, if not all,
military aircraft and ships have such onboard technology,
including the British jet hit by the Patriot. According to a
spokeswoman for the U.K. Ministry of Defense, that plane was
equipped with a Mode IV IFF system, the newest employed by
the Royal Air Force. The incident is under investigation.

But such technology is expensive, military officials say,
and has been slow to make its way through the entire
battlefield. The Army planned to update all of its vehicles
with a Battlefield Combat Identification System intended to
cut down on such accidents. But the service's efforts to
balance costs associated with upgrading older equipment and
developing new ones led to the cancellation of that effort
two years ago, Mr. Pike says.

The Marines have developed an ad hoc system to identify
themselves to each other. All Marines are marked with two
2-inch squares of black tape that reflect infrared light and
are worn on their helmets and on the left rear shoulder of
their uniform. The marker can be seen through night-vision
goggles by ground forces and pilots alike.

Some of their vehicles also have devices that identify them
as U.S. forces, including orange thermal panels that give
off heat signatures and can be seen by night-vision devices.

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