Friendly fire system gets good grades

Perhaps the greatest plague in the history of the battlefield has been fratricide, more commonly known as friendly fire. Various methods have been used to prevent forces from killing their own soldiers, but none have proven effective enough to warrant their continuation.

But initial reports on a system the Defense Department used in Iraq are positive enough for the department to expand on the system.

In the Iraq conflict, many of the combat deaths have been attributed to friendly fire, or what the Defense Department terms blue-on-blue fire. Those involved in developing methods and technology to prevent its occurrence say that any fratricide deaths are not acceptable.

For the past several years, Pentagon officials have been developing a system to prevent such incidents. Called Blue Force Tracking or IFF, for "Identification: Friend or Foe," the system would allow U.S. forces to distinguish between fellow troops and the enemy.

Officials agree that tremendous progress has been made in the past several decades and continues.

"There are three take-aways we have learned so far" from Operation Iraqi Freedom, said Army Col. James Shufelt, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's combat identification assessment division. "The first is that killing our own is the worst thing we can do. The second is that Blue Force Tracking is a winner. And the third is that we will develop new Blue Force Tracking requirements and acquisitions as a result of this conflict."

Blue Force Tracking will consist of global positioning applications, communications, most likely through the Joint Tactical Radio System, logistics and supply, and tactical overlays.

"Brigade and below commanders used Blue Force Tracking to display a common tactical picture as well as instant messaging for situational awareness and tactical communications," said Brig. Gen. Michael Mazzucchi, program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Preventing friendly fire incidents may be the most publicized use of the system, but sustaining forward- deployed forces and maintaining contact with them will be equally important, according to Army Maj. Gen. Steven Boutelle, whom the Senate has confirmed as the Army's next chief information officer.

"The Army has been selected as the lead service for the architecture for the future of how Blue Force Tracking will work with joint forces," Boutelle said at an Army information technology conference sponsored by the Northern Virginia chapter of AFCEA International. "There is a lot of equipment out there now trying to handle these different jobs. We have a lot of devices with different latencies that we will have to put together seamlessly."

Many DOD commanders profess the benefit of Blue Force Tracking in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but most agree the system needs to mature.

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper said that until DOD can afford to install a tracking device into every single platform, including humans, fratricide will continue to be a problem. He added that he did not think every soldier or Marine will be tagged any time in the near future, but did think it was possible for vehicles.

Van Riper said deaths also are caused by faulty equipment or systems that are turned off, including one instance during the Iraq conflict in which pilots in a British jet had not turned on their IFF radio, which would have identified them to U.S. forces. Subsequently, U.S. forces shot the jet down with a Patriot missile, killing the pilots.

Lt. Gen. Peter Cuviello, the Army's CIO, said the Blue Force Tracking system was "probably one of the most helpful and most successful" command and control systems used during the war.

The system is designed to put electronics on major moving parts, such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, aircraft and infantry fighting vehicles, but DOD would like to use satellite communications and terrestrial systems in the future. "Improvements will be continual," Cuviello said.

Boutelle said Blue Force Tracking was much more prevalent on aircraft than on ground forces, a source of some consternation within the Army and Marine Corps, who put their troops on the ground in harm's way.

"We can see ships around the world, planes in the air, but the ground forces were a big blank," he said.

John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in the DOD CIO's office, said the performance goal to aim for is zero friendly fire deaths, and "we owe it to our forces to shoot for zero, but the reality in most cases is that we won't get there...and our forces realize war is a complicated and untidy business."

Osterholz said combat identification systems, including high-tech dog tags and thermal panels, which enabled coalition forces to engage targets at night, worked well in Iraq, and he expects after-action reports to reflect that.


Blue-on-blue fratricide incidents

Operations Desert Shield and Storm

* 12 direct ground-to-ground fire incidents.

* 1 indirect fire incident; premature burst of artillery killed 1 soldier.

* 2 air-to-ground incidents; Apache helicopter fired on 2 armored vehicles.

* Total killed: 25 of 148 total combat fatalities attributed to friendly fire Operation Iraqi Freedom

* Patriot missile downs British Tornado aircraft — 2 killed.

* U.K. Challenger armored vehicle fires on another Challenger — 2 killed.

* Marines killed when mistakenly attacked by A-10 aircraft — 9 killed.

* F-15E aircraft fired on Army ground troops — 1 killed.

* F-15E aircraft fired on Kurdish special forces — 18 killed.

* U.K. Warrior armored vehicle fired on by A-10 aircraft — 1 killed.

* Unknown circumstances ground-to-ground friendly fire — 1 killed.

* Marine mistakenly fires on fellow Marine, believing him to be enemy — 1 killed.

* Total killed: 35 U.S. and allied troop deaths attributed to friendly fire out of an unknown and rising total number of fatalities.

Source: Center for Army Lessons Learned


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