In today's combat, the foe is not the only danger

April 15, 1994|By Aaron EpsteinKnight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The downing of two helicopters ove northern Iraq yesterday focused renewed attention on a tragic fact of high-tech, hair-trigger warfare: A large proportion of deaths in the world's danger zones come at the hands of friends, not enemies.

Nearly a quarter of the allied soldiers killed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War were slain by their comrades.

Of the 148 Americans who died in the 43-day war against Iraq, 35 were victims of "friendly fire," mostly deadly projectiles fired from M-1A1 Abrams tanks miles away. Friendly fire also was blamed for wounding 72 of the 467 Americans wounded in the conflict.

The Defense Department, in its analysis of the casualties, blamed such factors as the featureless desert terrain, complex and fast-moving military formations, low visibility, "the ability to engage targets from long distances," and the use of sophisticated weapons that were unable to tell friend from foe.

"One of the ironies of our high-tech warfare is that we are almost as vulnerable to our own weapons as we are to anybody else's," said Patrick Glynn, who studies political-military issues at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy research institute in Washington.

"It is an inherently dangerous business, and occasionally people just screw up. It's in the nature of things," Mr. Glynn said.

Based on official figures, the 23 percent death rate from friendly fire during the Gulf War was nearly 10 times higher than the rates of earlier wars fought by U.S. troops.

But many military experts believe friendly fire killed many more troops in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars than has been reported.

"It's hard to talk to any veteran of Korea or Vietnam and not hear of incidents of friendly fire," said retired Adm. Jim Winnefeld, a veteran of both of those wars.

Mr. Glynn said that "a big breakthrough in the Gulf War was that the Pentagon was honest about" friendly fire casualties.

Mr. Winnefeld, a scholar at the Rand Corp., another think tank, who co-wrote a book on joint air operations, said that defense officials are "very sensitive" to the problem and that "my guess is that we're better at avoiding friendly fire than we've ever been."

But at least one Defense Department program designed to curb U.S. casualties from friendly fire has been a casualty of budget cuts.

The Army recently delayed plans to field a new system that would have allowed ground and air combat crews to electronically question an unidentified tank, armored vehicle or helicopter. If it was friendly, there would be a coded reply.

The plans called for the electronic identification system to be placed on 1,660 tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters by 1997, at a cost of about $100 million. The identification devices on the Black Hawk helicopters shot down yesterday could not be read by the fighters that attacked them.

Defense Department officials have said there is no way to eliminate the threat of friendly fire entirely, especially in the tense, split-second decisions required by modern high-tech warfare.

"The time for combat has collapsed, ... and the margin [between] whether you kill or are killed is a few seconds or less," said Tony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Wilson Center Research Institute.

In those situations, some military officials warn, trying too hard to prevent deaths by friendly fire could make troops overly timid about firing first, thus causing even more deaths.

The Navy is studying the effects of stress and time pressures on officers and subordinates in the aftermath of the mistaken destruction of an Iranian airliner by the Navy cruiser USS Vincennes in 1988.

A psychologist who recently re-examined the incident for the Navy found that "a staggering number of things went wrong."

For example, it was learned that a computer design flaw misled the captain about the airliner's course. Some Vincennes crew members realized that the captain was getting incorrect information but were reluctant to speak up.

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