Attrition: Better Is Not Perfect


September 14, 2014: The U.S. Army released some of the results of an investigation into a June 9th incident where five U.S. Special Forces soldiers and an Afghan soldier died in Afghanistan when a GPS guided bomb was called in to the wrong location. It was concluded that the cause of the accident was misunderstandings and communications problems between the B-1B bomber that dropped the JDAMs bomb and the Special Forces soldier calling in the strike. Details of exactly what went wrong were classified as were specific suggestions for what needs to be changed to prevent more accidents like this. This secrecy was to be expected as the less the enemy knows how mishaps like this happen the less likely it is that someone will figure out how to make things like this happen on command. There is apparently some concern that the electronic devices used to call in smart bomb attacks could be hacked.

In the last decade it has become more common for electronic devices to be used to call in smart bomb attacks. For example this year U.S. Army Special Forces troops began receiving a new laser designator. The PEQ-1C SOFLAM is a 5.2 kg (11.3 pound) hand held device that looks like box like binoculars with two round lenses off to one side. It’s a 28.5 x 33.6 x 13.1 cm (11.2 x 13.2 x 5.2 inches) device that can determine range up to 20 kilometers away and designate targets over ten kilometers distant via a coded laser beam. It can be mounted on a tripod and operates off internal battery or vehicle power. Unlike earlier devices the PEQ-1C has fewer parts, is more reliable and draws less power. Devices like the PEQ-1C are used by Special Forces teams or forward air controllers to mark targets for laser guided bombs or missiles. This device is also exported.

Many armies prefer even smaller, if less capable, devices. For example, the French Army uses the JIM LR 2 which looks more like traditional binoculars. There are four, instead of two, round glass windows in the front, and the usual two eyepieces in the back. The controls are electronic, not mechanical. The zoom equipped stabilized binoculars also include infrared (night vision) electronics, as well as a laser rangefinder (max range of 5,000 meters) GPS, digital compass, a laser designator (max range of 10,000 meters), and communications systems to transmit coordinates of targets. The binoculars can also record video and still images. Weighing about 3 kg (6.7 pounds), one battery charge lasts four hours. Individuals can be detected at 5,000 meters and identified at about 900. Vehicles can be spotted at 8,600 meters and identified at 1,700.

Over the last decade, electronic binoculars like the JIM LR 2 have become more common. With these devices, and not a lot of training, troops can call in artillery or mortar fire, as well as GPS or laser guided bombs. More frequently, troops use them to keep track of the enemy and each other.

What was unusual about the June 9th incident was how rare such events have become. Since GPS guided bombs were introduced during the 1990s the technology and procedures for their use have been tweaked, automated and improved to avoid friendly fire incidents like this. The investigation of the June 9 accident is still under way and the results of that will lead to more tweaks to the system in a continuing effort to reduce friendly fire losses even further. The elimination of most friendly fire incidents was one of many changes that have made 21st century combat much less deadly for American troops. For example the casualty rate for American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been about a third of what it was for their counterparts in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Friendly fire deaths have fallen even more and are now about 20 percent of what they were in mid-20th century wars.



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