'Friendly fire' deaths put Pentagon into high gear to find remedy WAR IN THE GULF

March 14, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When a U.S. missile ripped into a Marine armored vehicle in late January in Saudi Arabia, killing seven Marines on board with a shower of metal, the vast, clanking machinery of military bureaucracy moved into high gear to attack the hazards of "friendly fire."

Within a few weeks, more than 35 ways of preventing such accidents had been tested in the Arizona desert and forwarded to the front, and now the redoubled effort is continuing with the Army's new Center for Identification Technology at Fort Meade.

"We're looking right now at how we're going to do it for the long term," said center Director Richard Childress. "In a few weeks the services are all getting together again to review all ongoing activity . . . and look at where we need to march out together for the future."

Mr. Childress, who also heads the Advanced System Concept Office for the Army's Laboratory Command in Adelphi, was ordered to pull together the military's resources on the issue of fatal "friendly fire" on Feb. 8, 10 days after the seven Marines were killed by the U.S. missile during a small but sharp battle with Iraqi tanks and infantry.

In all, the Pentagon estimates that during the Persian Gulf war 23 U.S. troops on the ground were killed by friendly fire, nearly one-fifth of the 125 Americans killed in combat during the war. Most of those deaths are believed to have resulted from missiles fired by U.S. aircraft, which also mistakenly struck a British armored vehicle, killing nine British soldiers.

"Friendly fire" casualties are considered inevitable in any fighting involving thousands of vehicles and aircraft on the move at the same time. But U.S. officials didn't expect them to account for such a high percentage of total casualties, although Mr. Childress said, "If you look at the number of engagements vs. friendly-fire instances, it's very, very small.

"But one is too many."

That sentiment was shared by the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Carl E. Vuono, who ordered his underlings in early February to come up with a quick remedy.

A few days later the order had trickled down the chain of command to Mr. Childress, who was told on Feb. 8 to head the effort. "Our hierarchy said we needed to refocus in one place all the efforts we had going for Desert Storm," he said.

He quickly recruited help from the Army's Night Vision Labs and from several other commands to augment his own office for advanced system concepts, housed in two buildings at Fort Meade. Each branch of the armed services was called in to brainstorm the question, and within a few days a list of 60-plus ideas had been winnowed down to 35 to 40 that were then tested on government property near Yuma, Ariz.

Of those, several were quickly put into action in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as the allied ground offensive cranked up. Perhaps the most obvious were orange and pink Day-Glo sheets, clearly visible from the air, that were attached to the roofs and hoods of vehicles in allied convoys. The sheets had earlier been used to mark off helicopter landing pads.

Allied soldiers also stuck "glint tape," which is visible by flare light, on some vehicles, while daubing others with luminescent paint. Still other vehicles got a specially mixed paint made by a single U.S. manufacturer in Milwaukee, which emitted infrared rays detectable by allied aircraft. Many of these paints and tapes were applied on the inverted-V symbols that already marked most allied vehicles as a sign of common identity for the armies of various nations.

But some vehicles, instead of getting paint or tape, were installed with small lights that could be seen only with night-vision goggles, or were outfitted with chemical lights that would glow for up to an hour and a half.

Mr. Childress wouldn't give many details of what his new office might be planning for future protection from friendly fire, although he described one possible system in which a small electronic device would warn a vehicle's occupants if they had been designated a target by the range finders and laser designators used by aircraft. The device would also send out a coded reply to tell the targeting pilot to hold his fire.

But a long-term solution, which would be integrated into all armed forces training and technology, might be four to five years away, Mr. Childress said.

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