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'Friendly Fire' Still a Problem

Despite technological advances, U.S. attacks on their own or allied forces in Iraq persisted.

May 16, 2003|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

It was supposed to have been a routine "close air support operation." A group of U.S. special operations forces aiding a convoy of Kurdish fighters radioed two American fighter jets to strike an enemy tank that was firing at them about a mile away.

But instead of striking the Iraqi tank, one of the aircraft dropped a bomb on top of the convoy, killing 18 Kurds and injuring three U.S. soldiers.

Pentagon sources say the attack may have been caused by a simple mix-up: Transmitters worn by special operation forces to avoid "friendly fire" were compatible only with Air Force planes, and not the Navy jets that bombed them.

The convoy attack is one of a small group of friendly fire incidents during the Iraq war that highlight the technological advances -- and problems -- in preventing fratricide on an increasingly complex battlefield.

Although the fratricide rate in the Iraq war likely will end up as one of the lowest in modern warfare, several incidents show how prone combat still is to equipment glitches and human errors. Despite the millions of dollars the military spent since the 1991 Persian Gulf War to reduce such incidents, some of the most advanced equipment failed to live up to its promise or never made it to the battlefield because of budget cuts.

"There was a number of new low-tech combat identification systems used, but none of the high-tech stuff that was under development since the Persian Gulf War," said John Pike, director of, a military research firm. "I'm sure that's going to be the subject of much discussion."

Some of the friendly fire incidents during the Iraq war include the downing of two allied jets by the U.S. Army's Patriot antimissile system, killing three airmen; the wounding of 31 soldiers in an inadvertent firefight between two U.S. Marine units; and the deaths of three soldiers near Baghdad's international airport when a military vehicle was struck by a bomb from an Air Force F-15 fighter jet.

The incidents are likely to renew debate as to how much military capabilities have improved to mitigate fratricide since Operation Desert Storm, when an alarmingly high rate of friendly fire incidents prompted public and congressional outcries. About a quarter of American fatalities in Desert Storm came at the hands of U.S. soldiers.

"Developing a combat identification system is a very nettlesome problem that a lot of people have been working on for years," said Christopher Bolkcom, a military analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "I don't know, though, if much progress has been made."

Rate of Incidence

Although the Pentagon said it does not yet have the figures for friendly fire incidents, a Times analysis of casualty reports shows that out of 151 total U.S. combat deaths, at least 15 soldiers were killed by their compatriots, a fratricide rate of about 10%. An additional 10 incidents with 20 deaths are under investigation.

U.S. forces also were involved in fratricide incidents that resulted in the deaths of at least two dozen Kurdish fighters and three British soldiers.

The fratricide rate is far lower than in Desert Storm. During that war, 35 of 147 fatalities, or 24%, were related to friendly fire. A study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1993 estimated that 15% to 20% of those killed or injured in World War II, the Korean War and the conflict in Vietnam involved friendly fire.

"I don't know what the final numbers are going to look like, but my initial impression is that we have greatly reduced [fratricide], given the tempo of these operations and the time of this campaign, when you compared it to Desert Storm," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq.

The fratricide rate for Operation Iraqi Freedom is likely to rise over the next few months as it did for Desert Storm, when the number of friendly fire deaths tripled from an initial tally of 10 to 35 as officials investigated incidents that were originally deemed accidents or casualties of hostile fire.

Ironically, the nature of modern warfare, however technologically advanced, has raised the risk of fratricide, particularly in air-to-ground combat, analysts contend. American airplanes are flying faster and higher, and carrying more lethal and precise weapons, leaving little margin for error and raising the potential for confusing friendly and enemy forces on the ground.

Advanced Targeting

Modern bombs guided by laser or satellites rarely miss their target -- right or wrong.

The F-15 incident near Baghdad airport typified the crowded and confused combat scenario in which fast-moving jets increasingly are being coordinated with ground forces, sometimes just hundreds of yards from a target.

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