Friendly fire toll raised sharply Pentagon quadruples tally for gulf war

August 14, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon quadrupled its tally of U.S. troops killed and injured by friendly fire in the Persian Gulf war from 26 to 107 yesterday and revealed that a staggering 77 percent of combat damage to the Army's Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles also was caused by U.S. forces.

The Pentagon had said earlier that friendly fire was involved in six incidents, killing 11 and wounding 15. It revised the figures yesterday to 28 incidents, 35 deaths and 72 wounded.

The Army bore the brunt of the friendly-fire casualties, with 21 killed and 65 wounded. The Marines suffered 14 deaths and six wounded. One sailor was wounded. Sixteen of the 28 incidents involved ground-to-ground combat, nine were air-to-ground. The other three, which involved no casualties, were ground-to-air, ship-to-ship and shore-to-ship.

The new figures indicate that 17 percent of the U.S. combat casualties from the war with Iraq -- 148 killed and 467 wounded -- resulted from friendly fire. The estimated friendly fire toll was less than 2 percent in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denied that the gulf war figures were extreme and said, "If you consider the number of vehicles and the number of attacks involved . . . the fact we had this number of incidents was remarkable."

He said the deaths and injuries were not "diminished" because ** they were caused by friendly fire. Families of the victims of friendly fire incidents have been offered information about them, but some have asked to be spared the details.

Officials said that all the details about those killed in action had been examined and that they judged the figures to be definitive but that they could not rule out the possibility of further rulings of friendly fire from the gulf fighting.

Nearly all the friendly fire incidents involved U.S. troops firing on other U.S. troops. The source of fire in a small number of cases was "undetermined."

Pentagon officials attributed the dramatically higher friendly fire toll in the gulf war to problems with identification devices; the speed and intensity of the largest armored battle in history; the long range of weapons, which can make identification of targets difficult; poor visibility; and better counting techniques.

Several of the damaged armored vehicles were hit by both Iraqi and U.S. rounds, but the main damage was caused by U.S. depleted uranium anti-tank shells. which left a trace of radiation on their targets, enabling U.S. analysts to identify the source of the shells. The Iraqis did not have such shells.

The Army said yesterday that of its 1,847 Abrams tanks in the field, 10 received significant battle damage. Seven were hit by friendly fire, and three others were deliberately destroyed by U.S. tank fire to prevent their falling into enemy hands.

Of the Army's 1,682 Bradley fighting vehicles, 20 of the 25 damaged in the war were hit by friendly fire. Overall, 1 percent of U.S. armor suffered significant damage, but 77 percent of that damage was from friendly fire, and 66 percent was from tanks.

Col. Roger Brown, an Army deputy chief of staff, said that 10,000 armored vehicles on both the Iraqi and allied sides were engaged in a 100-hour battle in which 2,000 Iraqi tanks, 500 armored personnel carriers and 1,500 artillery pieces were destroyed.

Identification devices issued to allied forces before the war were designed for use in Europe. They proved inadequate for the desert battle conditions. "We didn't have a clear means of identifying what the target was in terms of friend or enemy," General Brandtner said.

Richard Childress, director of the Army Center for Combat Identification Technologies, said that initial battlefield identification in the Persian Gulf was limited to painted panels and adhesive tape in the shape of an inverted "V."

Additional identification methods -- tape visible through infrared sights at night, special strobe lights and radar beacons -- were rushed to the gulf, but there was not enough time for their full deployment.

"Our weapons are very, very good. These things work. If you make a mistake and loose one of these things off, it's probably going to hit what you are shooting at. . . . All of a sudden we had a different ballgame on our hand and had to come up with solutions," Mr. Childress said.

The speed of the allied attack helped keep casualties from enemy fire to a minimum even as it complicated identifying targets, officials said. Most of the friendly fire victims during the ground war were caught in actions by offensive units and mistakenly identified as the enemy. Some had penetrated enemy lines and were in close combat when hit.

The Pentagon said that the friendly fire incidents had been established beyond doubt but that it was not possible to identify the individuals or specific vehicles involved in each attack. No disciplinary action is planned, the Pentagon said, but a review has begun.

In the worst single Army loss, six soldiers were killed and 25 wounded Feb. 27, when five Abrams tanks and five Bradley fighting vehicles engaged in a night battle with Iraqi forces were hit by fire from other Abrams tanks.

The Marines' worst loss was on Jan. 29, when seven were killed and two were wounded as a U.S. Air Force A-10 attacked their light armored vehicle.

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