Friendly fire cited in 13% of U.S. losses Accidental-casualty toll in gulf triples

probes continue

August 10, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A dozen Army M1A1 battle tanks were damaged or destroyed by friendly fire during the Persian Gulf war, contributing to what military officials said yesterday was an accidental-casualty count three times higher than the Pentagon has disclosed so far.

As many as 10 of the tanks were hit by depleted-uranium rounds -- munitions that only U.S. forces were using on the battlefield, the officials said.

Earlier, the Pentagon had declared that no Army tanks were hit mistakenly by U.S. forces, but senior officials began conceding this week that there were accidental losses of tanks and armored personnel carriers -- and of an undisclosed number of crewmen.

Military officials put the revised count of troops killed or wounded by friendly fire at about 80 men, or 13 percent of all U.S. combat-related casualties in Operation Desert Storm. But they cautioned that continuing investigations by the Marines could drive the figure even higher.

In World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, less than 2 percent of all American battlefield deaths and injuries were the result of friendly fire, according to an Army study.

The officials, who asked not to be identified, said that 20 of the 148 American soldiers who died in combat during the gulf war were killed by their own side and that 60 of the 458 wounded were victims of friendly fire.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney received a detailed briefing Wednesday on all the friendly fire cases that investigators have confirmed so far, said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams. The Army intends to release the latest information next week, possibly Tuesday.

The deaths of Americans from friendly fire have been especially painful and embarrassing to the military, which has not been eager to discuss the tragic cost of its stunning 43-day campaign to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

Nonetheless, each military service, concerned about preventing future accidents, has moved aggressively to learn whether U.S. combat deaths and injuries came from enemy or American fire.

Last month, the U.S. Central Command reported that 26 Americans had been killed or injured in eight confirmed friendly fire incidents. A total of 11 Americans and nine British service people had been killed by U.S. forces, while 15 U.S. and 13 British soldiers had been wounded, the command said.

Military officials said the deaths of four Marines will soon be classified as friendly fire casualties, as investigators wrap up an inquiry into an attack on a Marine light armored vehicle near Al-Wafra, Kuwait, on Jan. 29. The Marines were hit by an anti-tank missile fired by another Marine vehicle during a late-night clash with Iraqi armored forces moving into Saudi Arabia.

The officials said the latest friendly fire figures partly reflect their inquiry into the so-far-undisclosed accidental attacks on the M1A1 tanks, the Army's premier ground combat vehicle, and 15 Bradley fighting vehicles.

Each tank typically has a four-man crew, and infantry versions of the Bradley can carry a crew of three plus a squad of six soldiers. At least 93 crewmen could have been exposed to friendly fire in a worst-case scenario, far more than acknowledged publicly by the Pentagon.

The fact that nearly all the tanks and armored vehicles were hit by armor-piercing depleted-uranium projectiles led investigators to assume they were attacked by their own side, since only U.S. forces used such tank-killing munitions in the gulf war. The shells have dart-like projectiles made of depleted uranium, a metal 2 1/2 times denser than steel. They are fired from 120mm tank cannons and the 30mm Gatling guns of A-10 attack planes.

Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the enrichment of uranium for nuclear power and weapons-grade nuclear material, and contains extremely low levels of radiation. The metal, cheaper than the imported tungsten used in some tank-killing ordnance, is plentiful; Pentagon officials said enough has been stockpiled to meet "all conceivable" defense requirements for 300 years.

When a tank is hit by a depleted-uranium shell, the projectile strikes with enormous force and speed, punching a small, clean hole on the outside but igniting like white phosphorous and scattering shrapnel and radioactive dust on the inside. Any surviving crew member would receive about 250 millirems of gamma radiation, about 1,500 times less than the amount needed to cause radiation sickness, according to an Army study.

In March, a Sun reporter examined two heavily damaged M1A1 tanks and a Bradley fighting vehicle along a desert highway in Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border. The vehicles, belonging to a brigade of the 2nd Armored Division, were being carried in an Army convoy bound for Saudi Arabia.

"All friendly fire," explained one of the Army officers in the convoy. Another officer was overheard telling him to "shut up," prompting the first officer to remark, "I guess it could be anything."

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