Battlefield Friends or Foes

April 25, 1991

It didn't take a new Persian Gulf war to bring sharply into view the need for a new system of identifying aircraft under surveillance.

The old Persian Gulf war, between Iran and Iraq, proved that the outmoded, 1950s-style "identification friend or foe" used by U.S. forces would no longer suffice. First, the frigate Stark was nearly sunk by an Iraqi fighter plane, which launched a "fire and forget" Exocet missile that no one in the Western world will forget. Next, at the end of a high-tension chase of Iranian patrol boats, the billion-dollar cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iran Air jetliner loaded with civilians.

Then came America's own gulf war, in which 23 U.S. soldiers died by "friendly fire." Smart weapons, so effective when pointed at the enemy, in reality care little about the targets they find.

The Defense Department had realized it needed a new IFF system before the war with Iraq. The new Mark XV IFF, being developed by Bendix Communications, a Towson-based division of Allied Signal, would have sharpened radar operators' control of military skies. Using transponders like the old system but with vastly improved electronics, the Mark XV would eliminate the confusion that forced allied air controllers to ground French Mirage fighters when Iraqi planes from the same manufacturer were in the area.

But the Pentagon's budget crunch forced cancellation of the $4.5-billion Mark XV contract. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Helen Delich Bentley have asked defense planners to re-examine their decision and to look as well at expanding IFF to include protection for ground forces. Mark XV systems could handle this chore as well, but with the deaths of U.S. troops at the hands of U.S. pilots, problems of target mis-identification have been brought dramatically to the fore.

The senator and representative have a point, even if Maryland-based Bendix ultimately does not come up the final contract winner. Computer chips have made bombs, missiles and radar systems "smart" enough to follow many kinds of targets. Surely the same technology can be adapted to help these deadly weapons distinguish between friend and foe, saving American lives.

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