WASHINGTON—Despite another incident in which U.S. aircraft mistakenly bombed a convoy of allied Kurdish fighters and U.S. Special Forces in northern Iraq, friendly fire deaths are lower than they were the last time the U.S. battled Saddam Hussein, Pentagon officials and defense analysts said Sunday.
"This campaign has yielded fewer friendly fire deaths (than others) in military history, given the intensity of the war and the intertwining of so many coalition forces," said top Air Force spokesman William Bodie.
Five British combatants have been killed and dozens of American troops have been injured by friendly fire, the military's term for accidental attacks on its own troops. The U.S. military is still investigating the combat deaths of nine Marines near Nasiriyah on March 23.
The toll is lower than it was in Afghanistan, where at least 47 allied troops were killed in friendly fire incidents, including four Canadians who were killed when a U.S. Air National Guard F-16 missed its target.
A U.S. Army War College study in 1995 estimated that between 13 percent and 24 percent of U.S. combat casualties in the 20th Century were killed or wounded by their comrades.
"We have worked hard to identify blue (American) forces on the ground," Air Force Secretary James Roche said in an interview with Knight Ridder on Friday, adding that the results were "impressive."
Experts say it is nearly impossible to prevent friendly fire incidents caused by human or mechanical error on the dispersed and chaotic modern battlefield.
"The circumstances of this war are even more conducive to friendly fire casualties," said Andrew Krepinevich Jr., a defense strategist with the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "You have forces spread out in little pockets and islands in different parts of the country."
Such incidents are a regrettable but inevitable cost of war, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week. "There has been friendly fire in every war in the history of mankind," he said. "There are portions of this battle space that are enormously complex, and human beings are human beings and things are going to happen."
But the bombing of Kurdish and American troops 30 miles southeast of Mosul on Sunday led critics to question whether the Pentagon has done enough to reduce the risk.
"It is puzzling that a dozen years after the Gulf War highlighted friendly fire casualties, the Pentagon has still not implemented a high-tech combat identification system for ground forces," said John Pike, a defense analyst with Arlington, Va.-based research group GlobalSecurity.org. "They have not completely ignored the problem, but they did not do as much about the friendly fire issue as they had planned to do immediately after the Gulf War."
Concern over friendly fire deaths soared during the Persian Gulf War, when 24 percent of the 146 American troops who died were killed by fellow soldiers, one of the highest percentages in modern warfare.
The deaths, blamed on the lightning advance of allied troops and the stunning lethality and accuracy of their weapons, put pressure on the Pentagon to come up with better technology to pinpoint and protect friendly forces. A 2001 congressional report recommended that the Pentagon develop a system to identify friendly forces on the ground that would work across all branches of the armed forces.
But last year, Pike said, the Pentagon scrapped technology that could have helped avoid friendly fire deaths because it was too costly.
The Pentagon spent about $170 million on the Battlefield Combat Identification System before abandoning it. The system would have outfitted American tanks and other ground vehicles with a microwave radio technology that is triggered automatically when a shooter locks on a target. The combat identification system sends a query, an encrypted message, to the target vehicle. If the vehicle is friendly, it replies with an encrypted message.
Plans are in the works to test a similar system that works with military vehicles of NATO allies this fall.
"The Battlefield Combat Identification System was basically trying to do for ground combat vehicles what the Identification Friend or Foe has done for aircraft and air defense radar since the middle of the 20th century," Pike said. "The Pentagon is certainly going to have to revisit the Battlefield Combat Identification System decision."
While far from perfect, Krepinevich said, the Pentagon has made a "substantial effort during the last 12 years to minimize prospects for friendly fire." The focus of that effort is the notion of network-centric warfare—linking communication systems—to distinguish friendly from enemy forces.
For example, the Army, which suffered the most friendly fire deaths during the Persian Gulf War, has developed a satellite system that compiles each unit's location, providing a digital picture of the battlefield. The U.S. military also relies on global positioning systems to track battlefield movements.
"We're trying to take the confusion and the error out of war. And I think we have done a reasonably good job at it," Krepinevich said. "But we are never going to be perfect at it."
Guynn reports for The Contra Costa Times.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.