Printer Friendly

State the password: precision weapons make fratricidal incidents more deadly. New technology may be the remedy.

The elegant blue jacket with red trim, the baggy red trousers, the sash, the red fez--everyone could see the Zouave uniform of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry from half a mile away and know instantly that a Union soldier approached. Though more flamboyant than the regular blue or gray uniforms worn by the two warring sides of the US Civil War, the Zouaves' sartorial splendor was certainly in keeping with the fighter's urge throughout history to dress sharply. Think of the Vikings with their nifty horned helmets, after all.


Apart from looking sharp, uniforms--like the markings on the side of vehicles and aircraft--have always served the more basic function of allowing commanders and fellow fighters to know who is one of their own. But uniforms have never been enough to prevent an accidental attack on one's one forces, what's often called fratricide or "friendly fire." For one thing, the art of camouflage appeals to the equally strong if not stronger urge for self-preservation. Soldiers clearly benefit from blending into their surroundings, and such concealment also complicates the process of identifying friend from foe. Another means of identifying friend from foe, the use of passwords, may have worked 500 years ago for defenders of forts but may not be much use today, given the speed, range, and accuracy of modern weapons. Artillery, missiles, and other weapons can potentially be launched several miles away from a target--way too far to able to hear someone call out, "Don't shoot! It's me!"

Identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) devices, the electronic equivalent of spoken passwords, allow aircraft to identify friendly aircraft or let aircraft avoid being struck by friendly air-defense systems like the Patriot, and have been around for decades. But on the ground, major military powers have only recently begun testing an equivalent kind of IFF system. To date, radio communications have allowed ground forces to communicate, of course, but connections get interrupted, and spoken commands can be misunderstood. In addition, taking information from the radio and plotting it onto a paper map can lead to errors, especially if people are trying to do such calculations in the midst of a battle, so some visual means of identification remain important. As a kind of higher-tech equivalent to the insignia that fighters in the past might have painted on their vehicles, in recent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US, UK, Canada, and other military forces have used infrared reflective tape, thermal panels, and infrared transmitters on vehicles, such as tanks and Humvees, that are visible through thermal or infrared devices.

However, that hasn't been enough. In the most recent major military conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 40 deaths have attributed to fratricide, and the more notorious of friendly-fire incidents include the death of four Canadians from a bomb dropped by a US aircraft and a shootout between two British Challenger tanks. Fratricide may be inevitable in military operations, and as old as war itself, but the search for better ways to prevent it won't ever stop. Apart from the natural wish to avoid any unnecessary loss of life, fratricide can have significant political ramifications. It saps fighters' morale and erodes public support for military conflicts that might not enjoy much popularity to begin with. In terms of the actual effect on a fighting force's capability, the impact of fratricide today is negligible, but the psychological effects of fratricide on military forces and civilians alike can be devastating, politically and personally.

Has fratricide gotten to be less of a problem or more compared with past wars? While experts debate how exactly fratricide should be calculated (As a percentage of friendly casualties? As a percentage of enemy casualties?), various studies estimate the some 12-15% of casualties in combat during the 20th century overall were the result of friendly fire that wasn't very friendly at all. Comparing different eras is difficult, particularly the further back in time one goes, since keeping statistics on this subject wasn't widespread until World War II, but fratricide appeared to be a bit worse than usual during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, with rates among US forces of perhaps as high as 24%. That the Persian Gulf War marked a new era in warfare, with the introduction of a precision weapons and the melding of different services and different countries' forces on the same battlefield, may explain the rise in fratricide. Certainly, because of the blazing speed and precision of weapons today, friendly-fire incidents, when they occur, are more likely to be deadly. Furthermore, the split-second pace required for decision-making today means humans on the battlefield are under enormous pressure.

Consider two incidents involving the US Navy. The USS Vincennes in 1988 accidentally shot down an Iranian A-300 Airbus commercial airliner, mistaking it for an Iranian F-14 fighter and killing 290. Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, noted in a press conference afterward that ships at risk in the Persian Gulf had little time or room to maneuver when threatened. Not long before, in 1987, the commander of the USS Stark failed to identify an inbound Iraqi aircraft as a threat, and two Exocet missiles fired on the ship by the aircraft caused 37 deaths. In part because of these incidents, the Department of Defense created the Tactical Decision Making Under Stress program, which studies how humans interact with technology. Given the speed at which aircraft can bear down on a ship, technology that can help recognize what is a threat and what is not is critical, yet it does not eliminate human responsibility. Dr, Dennis McBride, president of the Potomac Institute, a non-profit research group, noted that naval forces, in particular, are often operating close to enemy territory prior to any official start of hostilities, in which case a false takedown of a target could lead to an international incident, igniting conflict.


The Human Factor

As sensors of one type or another become increasingly important for identifying targets, determining their location, and aiming weapons at them, the human making the ultimate decision of when and whether to fire becomes either the weak link in the sensor-to-shooter chain or the saving grace, depending on the ability of people to make decisions under pressure. The question is, how much can technology help? One type of technology, called Blue Force Tracking (BFT), automatically plots the position of friendly forces on a computer screen, so that a soldier navigating the battlefield inside a tank can look down and see that up ahead is an ally. In the past, keeping track of where fellow forces were meant calling on the radio, receiving coordinates, and plotting them on a map. But that's not always easy to do on the battlefield. Coordinates can be misunderstood, and positions mistakenly plotted. In situations in which radio communications weren't possible, different components of a fighting force might simply plan the routes over which they planned to travel and have to hope that everything went according to schedule. There again, some unforeseen development might throw the entire advance into confusion. The coming of network-centric warfare and GPS technology, however, means position data can be transmitted automatically, and not just over terrestrial radios but via generally more reliable satellite connections.


This automatic plotting of position was seen in action with promising results during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) last year. As described by Tim Rider, a spokesperson for the US Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, one particular instance of a scout platoon traveling across the path of a battalion leading a night attack east of Karbala, Iraq, into enemy territory could have led to fratricide, were it not for the computer screen within the battalion commander's vehicle that displayed the presence of the scout platoon as a blue icon. What might otherwise have been assumed to be an enemy, given that the battalion was entering enemy territory, was instead tagged as friendly. "I suspect that most of the fratricide avoidance due to BFT in OIF was quite undramatic and was as simple as a commander looking at a screen, seeing a friendly unit approaching, and because of the expectation as opposed to the surprise of seeing vehicles approach in the dark, hesitancy was introduced to the trigger puller," Rider said. In addition to being able to track where the good guys are, by automatically knowing one another's positions, units with this kind of technology that are cooperating in an attack wouldn't necessarily need to stop someplace to form a line; they could simply speed up or slow down according to where their relative positions were displayed on the computer screen.

The BFT program adds satellite-based positioning technology to another system being deployed called Force 21 Base and Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2), which includes software for transmitting and coordinating position information and connections to line-of-sight EPLARS and SINCGARS radios. Because trees, buildings, or other obstacles may interfere with terrestrial signals, the GPS-based technology of the BFT program provides an additional means of transmitting location information. Plus, data can be transmitted over far greater distances with satellites. Some 1,500 of these BFT/FBCB2 systems were used in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the majority of them in Iraq, said Thomas Plavcan, CECOM's acting program manager for FBCB2. The Marines had 200 or so, and the UK about 50. Putting the US-developed systems on UK platforms allowed the US to tie in UK vehicles to the BFT system, but eventually the plan is to be able to work with other radio systems not made in the US. At a demonstration planned this year in the Asia-Pacific area, Plavcan said the US hopes to interface BFT with the UK's Bowman radio system, allowing the separate military forces to share situational awareness despite the use of different communications devices based on NATO standards.

Eventually, the US Army plans to put roughly 40,000 BFT systems on various platforms, from tanks and Humvees to Bradley fighting vehicles and helicopters. In addition, delivery of about 500 handheld systems was expected in February. Plavcan said. Like a rugged Palm personal digital assistant, but fitted with a military GPS card and an L-band satellite transceiver card, these handheld devices would provide dismounted soldiers, special-operations forces, and others out in the field a screen displaying the relative location of friendly forces. Currently, position information is updated every five minutes for vehicles and every minute for helicopters, and when vehicles are on the move, position information is updated every 800 meters. A planned upgrade in bandwidth will be able to reduce the latency of the reporting, Plavcan said, so that positions could be reported more frequently.

The Blue and the Red

BFT may help keep track of friendly forces, but it does not track enemy forces. Of course, if the enemy were willing to put a BFT device on their vehicles as well, that would make the other side's job much easier. But since that's unlikely, the US, UK, France, Germany, and other nations have developed a NATO standard for ground-based combat identification, a kind of terrestrial version of the IFF system that aircraft and surface-to-air missiles use, only this IFF system uses higher-frequency millimeter waves, which are better able to transmit through shrubbery and other potential sources of interference. With this, soldiers on the ground who come in range of some unknown vehicle or soldier can hit a button to query whether this unknown entity is friendly. If it is and is equipped with a combat-ID transponder, it can send back a quick reply in the affirmative.

A program called Coalition Combat Identification is looking at three different types of IFF for fighters on the ground. One, a program for infantrymen called Dismounted Soldiers Identification (DSID), would permit individual infantrymen to identify whether other soldiers in their midst are friendly. Another program called Radio-Based Combat Identification would use the existing radios installed in ground vehicles as a means of querying whether forces are friendly. A third program, the most advanced in development, involves a box installed on vehicles that is specially designed to send and receive queries. The Battlefield Target Identification (BTID) program, as it is called, is based on NATO standard 4579, which will permit interoperability of BTID devices that so far have been developed by the UK, the US, and France. Developers said that encryption of the signals guarantees that they can't be intercepted, and that only very concentrated signals directed straight at BTIDs devices could potentially jam the signals.

Used in addition to technology that provides situational awareness, such as BFT, these combat-ID technologies would provide additional means of keeping track of friendly forces. "There are instances when blue-force tracking will be of great benefit and prevent fratricide. But there are times when it will not be quick enough for the gunner with a target in his sights, who must make a split-second decision," said Army Colonel Bill McKean, who is helping oversee the US Joint Forces Command's effort to coordinate development of this combat-ID technology. "In those cases, a combat-ID system like BTID or DSID will be the only system that works fast enough." The idea is to provide multiple means of identifying friendly forces, from information on position to thermal panels mounted on the sides of vehicles to combat-ID technology. Should one means of identification not work, another might.


But these methods don't take into account the dangers posed by fast-moving aircraft that provide support to troops on the ground. Helicopters are directly tied into the BFT system, for example, but other types of aircraft from other services are not. How, then, can fighters get updates on where friendly forces on the ground may be located? More than once in recent years, mistakes in identification have led to fratricidal attacks by aircraft on ground forces. As has been the case in the past, information on the presence of ground forces can be included in general intelligence briefings and air-tasking orders provided to pilots. To date, no direct feed of the BFT system has yet been provided to tactical air-command posts, which could, in turn, provide a live feed of such information to the planes.


But Plavcan said such a connection between the Army and US Air Force will be demonstrated over Link 16 at an upcoming exercise called JFEX '04, adding that his group is also looking at using aircraft to track the position of enemy (or "red") forces. The scenario might go something like this: A soldier on the ground uses his laser designator to find the geolocation of a possible enemy vehicle. That position is passed along to an aircraft, which would use its radar-based moving-target indicator to follow the path of the enemy and to pass back to forces on the ground, or other aircraft, the changing position of the enemy vehicle, displayed as a red symbol on the common picture that everyone has on their computer screens.

Canadian Air Force Major Jean-Marc Brzezinski noted that pilots do a number of things to identify whether something is hostile, and IFF is just one of several means they use. First, the geographical area from which a flying object originates can indicate whether it may be an enemy. Second, the direction of an aircraft can indicate its intent; obviously, if it's flying in the opposite direction it probably is less of a threat. A commercial airliner taking off from enemy territory may simply be flying somewhere else in enemy territory, with no military objective. Third, is the aircraft flying at a certain altitude or speed? A damaged aircraft unable to respond to IFF queries may fly back to base at a certain altitude through a certain pre-arranged corridor. IFF can help indicate a friendly aircraft, but if the other aircraft fails to respond, it may simply be because of technical error. "At the end of the day, you may request permission from a higher authority to engage--i.e., to shoot a missile at this target," Maj. Brzezinski said. "At that stage, you will wait until command and control allows you to fire upon the target. If in doubt, you will hold your fire and go in there for visual identification."


The accidental bombing by a US F-16 of Canadian forces training in Afghanistan in April 2002, which killed four and injured eight, illustrates a number of the issues related to identifying friendly forces. Information regarding the presence of the Canadian forces was available to the mission-planning cell in charge of briefing pilots on their airspace-control orders, but software used to present pertinent information to the pilots included such a confusing overload of information that information on the airspace below a certain altitude was intentionally removed from the mission data, according to witnesses interviewed by the Canadian Board of Inquiry that investigated the incident. Critical information got lost amid a mountain of data, in other words. At the same time, the Board of Inquiry found that rather than waiting for clearance from his air-operations commander to attack, the pilot made the decision on his own to drop a bomb on what he perceived to be a threat, which was a breach of proper procedure.

In this instance, no air-to-ground IFF system existed that might have helped avert the fratricide, but IFF is just one aspect of keeping track of friends and foes. Whether they are updated while the pilot is in the air or downloaded into the aircraft's computer display prior to takeoff, situational reports regarding who or what is on the ground are another means. And then there are standard procedures pilots should follow to receive permission to pursue targets. For situations in which something on the ground may or may not be a threat to the aircraft, Major Brzezinski said a pilot always has the option of simply getting out of the way. "There are very few things that can threaten a fighter aircraft at 25,000 feet flying at 0.8 or 0.9 Mach," he said. "Stepping out the door, you know if a country has surface-to-air missiles, or at least the area where you think they are going to be. Man-portable SAMs are always capable, but they are limited in altitude."

Mistaken Identity

Back 200 years ago, combat identification was basically uniforms. The British wore red and white; the French wore blue and white, for instance. More recently, during the Cold War, soldiers could be trained to identify certain types of tanks or other vehicles as belonging to the enemy, but as noted by Canadian Army Capt. Mark McNeil, who is helping develop combat-ID programs for Canada's Directorate of Land Requirements, the fall of the Iron Curtain meant many countries that once were enemies may now be fighting alongside Western militaries. In other words, that T-72 tank driving straight toward you may be an ally.

Telling the difference between friends and enemies can be tricky when all soldiers have are their eyes and ears. But apart from the risk of technology breaking down, are there are other downsides to the use of new technologies like BFT or combat identification? The Potomac Institute's McBride said one potential pitfall could arise if an enemy overran a force equipped with BFT and got access to all that position information. "Now suddenly he knows where all our good guys are. That would be the worst possible prospect, so that's an obvious problem."

Moreover, although developers say the system is designed not to be intercepted or otherwise interfered with, the risk nevertheless remains that a signal used to query whether a nearby soldier, vehicle, or something else is friendly could betray one's presence. Valery Rousset, strategic marketing manager for C4ISR at Thales Communications, said any extra bandwidth that IFF information might take up would have only a minor impact on overall bandwidth. "But broadcasting your position at least once a minute or upon interrogation makes you go active," Rousset said. "And believe me, from what we offer on cellular monitoring, even the shortest of bursts is good to use and gives way to at least detection, some target classification, and position-fixing, which, in turn, provides you with a firing solution."

Given the fast pace of military operations, forces will have no choice but to employ technology in identifying their brethren. But with the growing use of machines on the battlefield--not least the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which in addition to surveying enemy lines now sometimes carry weapons--the ability of forces to prevent fratricide may depend on how ably these machines are programmed. Humans likely will always have the final say on whether a trigger is pulled or not--or at least it is hoped--but may find their decisions increasingly based more on the quality of the information they get from their computer screen, far away from the action, than the observations of their own eyes and ears. For the soldier in harm's way, uniform colors and symbols painted on the sides of vehicles won't matter nearly as much as their ability to wave the electronic equivalent of a white flag.

RELATED ARTICLE: Hurry and Respond

As a technology that has been around for several decades, identification friend or foe (IFF) has seen its share of improvements over time, including the development of new encryption that prevents interception of signals. Among the latest news in IFF, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and other companies are introducing Mark IIA IFF systems, which include NATO-approved Mode 5 encryption. The US is leading other countries in adoption of Mode 5 IFF, though a big program in the UK to introduce what is in that country being called successor IFF (SIFF) consists of Mode 4 IFF, the current standard in the US, with the capability to upgrade to Mode 5 at a later date, according to Bob Askin, Raytheon's business-development director for electronic combat systems.

Besides being used for verification of an aircraft's identity by other aircraft, IFF also helps ground-based anti-aircraft systems avoid nailing friendly aircraft--or at least it should. During the recent war in Iraq, Patriot missiles notoriously took down a UK Royal Air Force Tornado, killing two pilots, and a US Navy F/A-18C Hornet, killing the pilot. Raytheon declined to comment, saying the incidents remain under investigation by the US Army, which has not to date made public any conclusions about why they happened. Whether faulty operating procedures, malfunctioning IFF, or some other cause is determined for the Patriot mishaps, IFF remains a critical aspect of air-defense systems.

Manufacturers of the technology also include Thales Communications, which recently received an award from Saab Bofors Dynamics to provide 50 TSA 1400 IFF short-range interrogator systems for integration with the RBS 70 SHORAD weapon system.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Horizon House Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:5th New York Volunteer Infantry
Author:McKenna, Ted
Publication:Journal of Electronic Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Previous Article:The US Navy has awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat.
Next Article:IO in the information age; Part I: the genesis and evolution of joint IO.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |