It is quite possibly one of the most cringe-worthy predicaments military forces in the modern coalitions face today, and not only does friendly fire leave a long trail of negative PR, it also leaves military forces scrambling to make sense of the divides between forces that allow for such pointless incidents to happen in the first place.
For as long as forces have been fighting, though, friendly fire – or fratricide as it is otherwise called – has always been a bone of contention. In one recent example, three British soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment were killed in southern Afghanistan on 23 August by a bomb dropped from an American F-15 aircraft.
But now, coalition forces are trying harder than ever to avoid such incidents, using a combination of situational awareness and combat technologies running on interoperable processes and platforms in the first ever effort to draw together international military communities.
In September this year, a large-scale multinational effort to reduce friendly fire kicked off at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and the California deserts in the US. Bold Quest is a joint exercise allowing countries fighting in Afghanistan to compare technology and ideas, with a focus on air-to-ground combat ID technologies. Those taking part included the US, the UK, Canada, Austria, France, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
TIME TO CATCH UP?
The call for such a united front on friendly fire comes as little surprise. Incidents of friendly fire have increased in the modern war era. According to the US government, in both Word War Two and the Vietnam War, 15-20% of US casualties were the result of fratricide. By the first Gulf War in 1990, the rate had increased to 24%. And as the recent tragedy in Afghanistan illustrates, along with a spate of incidents in Iraq, little progress seems to have been made since.
It is not only the US forces that have been to blame for friendly fire; Britain has historically been one of the worst offenders. In 1471, during the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian division fired on its forces by mistake. During World War two, submarine HMS Triton sank fellow Royal Navy submarine HMS Oxley and, in the 1982 Falklands War, HMS Cardiff shot down a friendly Gazelle helicopter.
The recent event with the three British soldiers in Afghanistan, however, marks the worst friendly fire incident involving the British since 1991, according to Brigadier John Lorimer, commander of the British forces in Helmand.
"It will be up to the investigation to find out whether all of the equipment and procedures being used at the time were correct," Lorimer told the UK’s Sunday Telegraph shortly after the event.
Earlier this year, the UK Defence Secretary Des Browne said 12 British soldiers in total had died as a result of so-called ‘blue on blue’ incidents involving US troops since 1990.
A FRIEND IN NEED
With multinational forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, the major obstacle in reducing friendly fire is a lack of cohesion between nations. There are 37 countries fighting in Afghanistan, each with their own equipment and procedures for distinguishing friend from foe.
Friendly fire incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan are more numerous for non-US coalition forces but it seems the problem is less one of American forces making mistakes and more one of the US having systems and equipment which other nations lack.
"When the US provides air cover for its own troops, the troop identification mechanisms are identical but, when providing cover for all other troops, they are not identical," says Dr Sheila Bird of the Medical Research Council, who has researched fratricide. "There is therefore, potential for more error. The problem is not US-specific – if you have different identification systems, then this makes it more difficult for those providing air cover."
This view was echoed by UK Conservative MP Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons public account committee, when it released its 21st report of the Session in April.
"The Americans have the technology available so that they can recognise each other, so they don’t shoot each other up – but we have no system by which their aeroplanes can recognise our tanks as being friendly. At the moment, pretty well the only solution to avoid being shot at by an American aeroplane if you’re in a war, standing on top of a British tank, is to have a great big Union Jack flying on top of your tank," Leigh said.
So it then comes as no surprise that a spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defence was quoted saying: "The UK plays a leading role in driving for a consensus among allies and partners on interoperable solutions and common approaches. In 2005, the UK hosted a major multi-national combat ID technology demonstration, exercise Urgent Quest, which trialed a variety of land-based combat ID technologies."
But, while each nation may be trying to play up its own efforts in this space, an industry insider in the UK, who requested to remain anonymous, said confusion still lies. "There is a mishmash of different equipment, procedures and techniques among nations within the same coalition, with too many dabblers. This is a pan-nation issue and the real trick is to bring heads together." In terms of fratricide prevention, interoperability is the order of the day.
Friendly fire prevention technology is complex – different countries have different weapons and procedures with varying levels of sophistication. The problem also lies in that a large number of companies are all trying to develop the next gadget. The state of play is blurred further by a culture of secrecy amongst firms, anxious not to lose their competitive edge or divulge security secrets.
In nations such as the UK, political issues can also be raised – there the government has been accused of failing to invest in the armed forces. The Ministry of Defence claims it has allocated £3.8bn in friendly-fire prevention technology but the Conservative opposition and manufacturers argue that this equipment – such as the £2bn Bowman communications system in use by the British Army, which is part of the nation’s future solider system, was never intended for that purpose. Furthermore, the House of Commons public accounts committee report, published in April 2006, says that half of the programmes intended to reduce friendly fire incidents through enhanced location awareness and battlefield equipment have "suffered delays, been deferred or re-scoped". UK government spending on defence as a proportion of GDP is at its lowest since 1930.
The report also damned the delay of the Battlefield Target Identification System which it describes as "the largest equipment project to improve combat identification". When contacted, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement: "The Government takes the risk of fratricide in modern warfare very seriously and is working actively to prevent it. Analysis over time has shown that incidents are generally caused by a number of factors. Regrettably, there is no single technical solution which would prevent fratricide in future."
With the inevitable time gulf between the development of new military equipment and its delivery to soldiers on the ground, it is hoped that "Bold Quest" will speed up the implementation of technical solutions that can better encourage interoperability.
But ensuring greater technological interoperability is about more than just bringing heads together. "You have to keep in mind the cost-effectiveness of harmonisation," said the Medical Research Council’s Bird.
"In principle, the idea sounds good but in practice countries might not be able to afford new equipment. Militarily, certain devices may work well but if they are very costly and the amount of lives saved are not sufficient to justify the cost then they might not be taken up."
While Bold Quest tested state-of-the-art laser technologies, for example, the solution could perhaps lie in devices of a simpler nature. Lenses that fit onto the headlights of vehicles, along with night vision goggles can help troops better identify a friend of foe, such as BAE’s night-vision goggles that use digital imagery to improve situational awareness under all lighting conditions, currently under development.
TO ERR IS HUMAN
Thinking also has to move beyond the technology. Incidents of friendly fire often result from human error and lack of judgement during the heat of battle – no piece of equipment can solve this. Only better training and more practice can lessen human failings.
And where mistakes have occurred there has also been a call for faster establishment of what went wrong – a task made that much harder in the UK by delayed inquests.
"Inquests into friendly fire incidents should not be delayed," says Bird. "If there are lessons to be learnt from the circumstances of incidents then we need to understand these lessons sooner rather than later to improve the situation for troops currently serving."
Inquests into friendly fire fatalities during major combat in Iraq in 2003 were not held until 2006. The situation is not helped by a lack of cooperation with the US. The Ministry of Defence recently disclosed that no UK "friendly fire" inquests will hear evidence from US military witnesses. It is alleged that the Pentagon fears US troops suspected of being involved in such fatalities would be arrested for manslaughter were they to enter the UK.
Preventing "friendly fire", thus, requires a multi-layered strategy and a realisation that technological innovation alone is not enough. And in technology perhaps lies part of the problem. Advances in weaponry have made modern warfare much more dangerous. "When you’re fighting close quarters and you call in air support, who launch an accurate air strike, the chances are that you are going to be very close to where a powerful bomb or missile lands and you could well be struck by a ricochet from a stray bullet – which technically would be classified as friendly fire," said a spokesman from Boeing.
The argument that modern warfare has increased the risk of friendly fire is lent support by the fact that such incidents have increased significantly in the modern era.
Ultimately, friendly fire will probably never be eliminated. New technologies – situational awareness and combat identification, play a part in a collective consensus to reduce the odds. But equally important is improved interoperability between nations, along with better training, techniques and intelligence.
BRITISH DEATHS BY US FRIENDLY FIRE
February 1991: Nine soldiers from Royal Regiment of Fusiliers killed when US A10 "tank-buster" attacks stationary tank
April 1994: Two Army officers among 26 Nato delegates killed in Iraq when American F-15s shoot down US Blackhawk helicopter
March 2003: Lance-Corporal Matty Hull dies in Iraq after American A10 attacks his armoured vehicle
March 2003: RAF Tornado crew Flight Lieutenant David Williams and Flight Lieutenant Kevin Main killed by US Patriot missile battery near Iraq-Kuwait border after being mistaken for Iraqi missile
December 2006: MoD investigation launched amid reports that Royal Marine Jonathan Wigley was hit by Allied fire in Helmand
August 2007: Three soldiers from 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment killed in Helmand by bomb dropped by American F15s