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Fixes Touted to Combat Friendly Fire Casualties

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2, 1999 – Infantrymen all over the world will agree with a retired Army command sergeant major's assessment: "Friendly fire isn't friendly."

Friendly fire, or fratricide, incidents killed or injured about 17 percent of the American casualties during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Following the war in the gulf, U.S. officials vowed to lessen the number of friendly fire incidents in any future conflicts.

"The problem is our weapons can kill at a greater range than we can identify a target as friend or foe," said Army Maj. Bill McKean, a cavalry officer who is the operational manager of the Joint Combat Identification Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration. "Yet if you wait until you're close enough to be sure you are firing at an enemy, you've lost your advantage."

DoD examined changing the rules of engagement to see if that could fix the problem. "What they found was, if you tighten the rules of engagement to the point that you reduce fratricide, the enemy begins inflicting greater casualties on you," said McKean, who works at U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va. "Waiting until you're sure in combat could mean becoming a casualty yourself."

The DoD combat identification technology demonstration began in 1996. Researchers began testing promising technology in simulation and modeling labs and during exercises. "The beauty of the [advanced concept technology] demonstration is the way it can speed technology into the hands of the warfighters," said Gerardo J. Melendez, a technical manager of the demonstration and chief of the Battlespace Identification Branch at the Army Communications and Electronics Command, Fort Monmouth, N.J.

He said the process allowed members of the team to look at and assess promising technologies quickly. They discarded those with no military use, but accelerated the testing cycle for technology they found that could potentially solve the friendly fire problem.

The demonstration project brings together engineers, other technical experts and warfighters to assess different technologies under battlefield conditions. The teaming also allowed warfighters to help identify technical issues and problems using systems and to develop tactics, techniques and procedures for the use of promising technologies.

"This way, when we are finished," McKean said, "we can present the full package" -- improved equipment and the tactics, techniques and procedures to use it.

Combat identification is divided into four mission areas: air- to-ground, ground-to-ground, ground-to-air and air-to-air. About 61 percent of the fratricide incidents during Desert Storm came from ground-to-ground mistakes, and 36 percent were air-to- ground. The demonstration concentrated on air- to-ground and ground-to-ground engagements with the objective of presenting and testing systems offering reliable identification capability.

Officials looked at four basic "concepts":

o Systems that align with the weapon or weapon sight and are pointed at the intended target. The system "interrogates" the target -- a reply identifies it as friendly, otherwise it is identified as unknown.

o "Don't shoot me" systems use the Global Positioning System and other similar data sources. An interrogation is sent in all directions containing the targeted position. Friendlies present in that position return a "don't shoot me" response.

o Situational awareness systems rely on periodic updates of position data to help users locate friendly forces.

o Noncooperative target recognition systems compute a signature using acoustic and thermal signals, radio emissions, and other possible data sources. The system compares the signature in its library database to characterize the target as potentially a friend, foe or neutral.

Systems that show the most promise are the Air National Guard- Air Force Reserve situational awareness data link and the Army battlefield combat identification system, Melendez and McKean said.

The Army candidate identifies targets without affecting the firing function. Essentially, a tanker points at a target and queries it with a millimeter-wave device. If the target's friendly, an answer comes back.

The system is small and easily placed on vehicles, and it is potentially usable with allied forces, test officials said. The system's been used on Army and Marine vehicles and it works effectively in the fog of war, they added.

"It will work through smoke, fog, dust and rain," said Melendez. "It works well beyond visual range."

"This [project] really demonstrated the effectiveness of integrating warfighters into tests," McKean said. "Soldiers used [the system] in ways we hadn't anticipated. They used the system to get a better read of the battlefield." Their comments become part of the assessment and doctrine, he noted.

The situational awareness data link, or SADL, can be used for air-to-surface and air-to-air identification. "In tests, this system worked very well in preventing air-to-surface fratricide," Melendez said. Without SADL, pilots use their first pass to identify the target and confirm the position of friendly forces. "With SADL, they know exactly where friendly forces are in relation to what they are attacking, so they can make drops on the first pass." Besides preventing numerous fratricides during test exercises, SADL also promises pilots higher survivability -- fewer passes means lower risks, he said.

Bottom line: Technologies exist that will cut fratricide, Melendez said. The problem will be integrating them into an overarching architecture. "We're not there yet," he said.

The demonstrators have made recommendations on 12 of 14 systems and expect to finish assessments on the remaining two this fiscal year. While the battlefield combat identification system and the situational awareness data link were good solutions for ground vehicles and fixed-wing close air support, respectively, more work needs to be done to outfit helicopters and forward observers/forward air controllers.

"I think it would be very hard, if not impossible, to eliminate fratricide, but we can reduce it significantly and, at the same time, improve our combat effectiveness," McKean concluded.

Read about a historical accident that may have changed the outcome of the Civil War in DefenseLINK News "Friendly Fire That Changed a War?"

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