Lasers could reduce friendly fire incidents

The Joint Forces Command is exploring how laser and radio frequency technologies could be used to protect soldiers from friendly fire during the heat of urban combat.

The command completed a nearly two-week exercise Sept. 14 at Fort Benning, Ga., to determine the sustainability, impact and functionality of various laser and radio frequency technologies.

"The sole purpose of this technology is to identify friendlies on the battlefield," said Army Lt. Col. Michael Fowler, chief of the ground combat division for the joint combat identification evaluation team.

Using Fort Benning's urban terrain training center, the soldiers and Marines were put through several scenarios to determine the effectiveness and reliability of the Soldier Integrated Multi-function Laser System (SIMLAS).

The system includes an infrared laser on the soldier's weapon for interrogation, disklike laser detectors on the soldier for detection of the interrogations and a small radio frequency transponder to transmit the reply to the shooter. When soldiers see someone in their scopes, they can query if that person is a friendly soldier by directing a laser at the person. If the soldier is friendly and attached to SIMLAS, a radio frequency response will be sent to the engaging soldiers letting them know that the target is an ally.

If no response is heard, the person being targeted is at best a bystander or civilian and at worse an enemy combatant.

"What we have to do is make sure we get the right equipment for the most deployed weapon in the world: the American soldier," said Army Lt. Col. David Gallop, program manager for the Army's Land Warrior system.

Land Warrior features a wearable ensemble of equipment and software, including elements of wireless communications, weapon-mounted sensors, Global Positioning System-based navigation and computers that integrate soldiers into a networked fighting team. Land Warrior is the Army's biggest step toward developing a networked battlefield in which all soldiers can share situational awareness.

The system costs about $25,000 per soldier and may not be economically feasible for all coalition allies. SIMLAS, however, could take its place in some battlefield scenarios.

SIMLAS can also be linked to a central command and control location, so battlefield commanders can see, on a map, where all of their troops are located. They can determine if any of their soldiers are using SIMLAS to query potential targets and, if so, whether those targets are friendly or unidentified. If a friendly fire incident does take place, the system will be able to determine if the soldier or Marine went through the necessary steps to find out if the person was an ally.

After the troops ran through various exercises with the technology at Fort Benning, special infantry analysts debriefed them to get their feedback on the technology. An unidentified Canadian soldier said the use of an identification technology such as SIMLAS has great potential at a distance but presented relatively little benefit in close quarters.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Richard Ross agreed, saying identification technology at a close distance is generally not needed.

"But from more of a stand-off position, I can see how this would have a great benefit," Ross said.

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