A variety of technology has been developed to help reduce the incidence of ‘friendly fire’ incidents but unless they are supported with appropriate procedures such incidents are likely to continue to occur, reports Strategic Defence Intelligence.

Friendly fire incidents have plagued military operations throughout history and have become more frequent with the homogenisation of uniforms and equipment across the armed forces of different nations. As restrictions on reporting have lifted, the public have become all too aware of their frequency in war zones.

Attacks on friendly troops – also known as blue-on-blue incidents – occur for a variety of complex reasons. As a result of the increasing frequency of the incidents, researchers have been looking to science to find a reliable way of preventing them.

This week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that is developing augmented-reality goggles that could help prevent such incidents by giving soldiers information regarding the position of troops overlaid onto their surroundings. Developed in cooperation with Vuzix, a company that produces commercial video glasses, the goggles will relay information captured by drones alongside other situational awareness data.

This technology is far from the first to be developed to help prevent such incidents. Other ideas include:

  • Radio based combat ID that give a final ‘shout out’ to allied forces before firing.
  • The Joint Combat Identification Marking System (JCIMS) which combines combat ID panels, thermal ID panels and infrared lights to positively identify friendly ground forces through the use of infrared and thermal optical technologies.
  • Matchbox size mirrors with a reflection pattern that reflects a signal back to a shooter using laser sighting.
  • Radio frequency ID (RFID) tags which are illuminated by an aircraft’s radar to identify ground assets and troops.
  • ‘Smart guns’ that use radio waves to identify other friendly guns.
  • Infrared helmet tags that can be identified using night vision equipment.

In contrast to these advanced breakthroughs, low-tech measures can also achieve a measure of success. Libyan rebels recently took to painting the roofs of their vehicles pink to avoid being mistakenly targeted by coalition forces, for instance.

Speaking back in 2007, the then UK minister for the armed forces, Adam Ingram, said: “Combat identification is complex. No single piece of technology will completely resolve all the issues of combat identification. Incidents of friendly fire are tragic, and are generally caused by a number of complex, inter-related factors – not by the lack of a particular piece of equipment.”

That said, the right technology, when combined with relevant combat information and rigid command and control procedures, could greatly reduce the number of future friendly fire incidents. Data would need to be freely shared among coalition forces for this to occur.

Until a completely reliable solution is developed, research and field trials on combining technology with intelligence will continue, and with each breakthrough the number of unnecessary deaths will decrease.