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`Friendly fire' remains a problem for U.S.

WASHINGTON—Marines and Army troops, in a communications glitch, trade potshots across a river in Baghdad.

U.S. Patriot missiles shoot down two coalition planes.

A U.S. fighter-bomber plane attacks a convoy of American special forces and Kurdish allies.

Twelve years after vowing to fix the "friendly fire" problems of the first Persian Gulf War, American military units continue to shoot at one another and at their allies.

Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, satellite and computer technology has become commonplace at all levels of the military. This has made it possible for ground vehicles, as well as aircraft, to be equipped with transponders or other devices that can send signals identifying them as "friendly" to other American units, and many of them are.

But military analyst John Pike, president of, a Washington research group, said the military had stopped funding for a system that would have protected far more vehicles: the Battlefield Combat Identification System.

"It was going to provide an automated beacon system. . . . It was canceled in the fall of 2001 as being too expensive," Pike said.

"In retrospect," he said, "that looks penny-wise and pound-foolish."

Though investigations are far from complete, preliminary evidence suggests that about 1 in 5 five U.S. military personnel killed in combat in the current Iraq war died at the hands of fellow Americans, a defense official said.

"It seemed like every other day somebody was getting killed," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

To date, 126 U.S. personnel have been reported killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. At least two dozen of the deaths apparently occurred in accidents or other noncombat situations.

In the Persian Gulf War, the incidence of friendly-fire fatalities was only slightly higher: 35 of 146 combat deaths, or about 24 percent.

Pentagon officials are frustrated that friendly fire episodes remain so common despite all the high-tech tools available to troops and all their training.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at what was billed last week as a Pentagon "town hall meeting," said: "I'm sure, I am positive, that out of this we're going to end up finding ways that we can reduce friendly-fire casualties. I am positive we can. There has to be a way to reduce that."

After American fire killed three British soldiers in the war's opening days, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized to the United Kingdom.

Two Royal Air Force fliers were killed when their Tornado fighter-bomber was shot down by an American Patriot missile. Another British soldier died when a U.S. A-10 Warthog attack plane fired on two British armored vehicles.

"One of my jobs has to be to ensure that we get the resources and the technical means to ensure that in the future this never, never happens again; and that will be my quest," Myers told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The British, too, had friendly-fire incidents. In one case, two British tank crewmen died after a fellow Challenger II tank fired on them west of Basra.

Some "blue on blue" incidents, as the military calls them, are unavoidable amid the fog of war.

"Friendly fire happens because things in war, in combat, never go as planned; and there are always people where they shouldn't be," said Norman Polmar, a Washington naval analyst and author.

Still, the percentage of friendly-fire casualties in each gulf war ranks among the highest in modern history. But that fact is deceptive, because overall combat deaths have been very low by historical comparison.

"The real story is that the casualties have dropped to such a low rate that the percentage of people killed by friendly fire may appear to be abnormal," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who was in command of coalition air power in the Persian Gulf War.

As in Afghanistan, where an American plane killed four Canadians by mistake last year, air-to-ground fire is often the most deadly.

Horner said the killing power of laser- and satellite-guided weapons makes such mistakes "more serious."

In the Persian Gulf War, only 20 percent of U.S. strike aircraft were capable of firing precision-guided weapons. This time, as Myers said last week in a speech, it was "100 percent."

Unlike in the first Gulf War, ground-to-air attacks also have been a problem for the military this time.

Horner said American commanders were particularly distressed by the number of incidents involving Patriot missiles. After shooting down two allied planes, the missiles locked on a third and would have launched at that one, too, if the plane's pilot hadn't shot first.

A technical glitch may be to blame, Horner said. But he suspected that human error may be part of the problem.

American war planners had worried that Iraq might use drone aircraft to dump poisonous gas on U.S. troops, which may have contributed to itchy fingers on the Patriots, Horner speculated.

"We shot down two coalition aircraft with Patriots, and we didn't shoot down any in the first Gulf War," Horner said. "So I ask myself what the difference is. . . . I think one thing is that there was a lot more concern about Iraqi unmanned aircraft or light aircraft."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.