Attrition: Fixing Friendly Fire


May 2, 2010: In the last eight years of fighting, U.S. Army friendly fire (fratricide) losses have reached historic lows. Since September 11, 2001, there have been 55 friendly fire incidents. These caused the death of 30 personnel, and the loss of about a hundred million dollars worth of vehicles and equipment. That's about one percent of combat deaths, which is about half the official rate during World War II. The rate during that war was actually much higher because, until recently, friendly fire was much more of a problem than the official statistics showed. That's because warfare has reached the point where it's very difficult for there to be unrecorded friendly fire incidents. But in the past, it was much easier to hide friendly fire incidents.

During World War II, it was later (using interviews of veterans) found that some 20 percent of all U.S. casualties were probably from friendly fire. That was more than ten times the official friendly fire rate. The combat veterans were particularly reluctant to talk about instances where rifle fire or grenades were the cause of friendly fire losses. But this was quite common, and confirmed by checking with battlefield surgeons (who could tell a U.S. bullet from an enemy one.)

The percentage apparently stayed the same in Korea, but may have gone up a bit during the Vietnam war (where the official friendly fire rate was 2.85 percent.) The most common place for friendly fire casualties to occur, and not be reported as such, is during infantry combat. In fire fights, or battle in urban areas, gun fire and grenades were going every which way and it was often hard to determine who was hit by who. The only witnesses to this sort of the thing were reluctant to report it. For one thing, everyone knew that any of them could be the one to shoot one of their friends in the chaos of combat. Having your friends killed in battle was bad enough without having the dead man's family know it was American troops that did it. There are still friendly fire casualties in these circumstances. But the lower number of casualties, and better investigative capabilities, makes it more difficult for friendly fire casualties to go unreported.

Part of the problem with comparing friendly fire rates from different wars is the change in technology available. The more monitoring you have on your weapons, the easier it is to spot a friendly fire casualty and, of course count it. New weapons also change the types of friendly fire losses. During World War II and Vietnam, misidentification was the cause of (officially counted) friendly fire losses 26 percent of the time. During the Gulf War, when a lot more long range weapons were used, misidentification was the cause of 39 percent of the losses. At the same time, better communications, brought the portion of friendly losses caused by coordination problems down from 45 percent in the 1941-72 period to 25 percent in the Gulf War.

While it was always possible to get friendly fire losses below 20 percent, it wasn't easy. A major problem was always that American forces tended to have a lot more firepower. This has been a trend that began during World War II and has simply continued since. Thus there's more American bomb fragments and bullets flying about, hitting whoever happens to be in the way. Also, combat is still a chaotic process and the things don't always work as planned. While the American armed forces are trying to limit the friendly fire losses, they also know that if they impose too many restrictions, the combat troops won't be able to do their job. Even during Vietnam, the communists realized that we were reluctant to use our firepower advantage if the enemy and American troops were too close together. The communist troops often got real close on purpose, to avoid U.S. shells and bombs. This worked initially, but American troops quickly realized what the communists were trying to do and simply called in the firepower anyway if it appeared that not doing so would lose the battle and get a lot more U.S. troops killed anyway. The Taliban and al Qaeda continue the tradition of exploiting American Rules of Engagement, although these days the gambit involves using civilians as human shields.

There are also attempts to provide electronic protection from friendly fire. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army and Marines began seeking electronic solutions to their friendly fire problems. This quickly led to the BTID (Battlefield Target Identification Device), an IFF (Identify, Friend of Foe) device for ground combat vehicles. Since World War II, warplanes have used IFF, which in aircraft is a special radio that, when it receives an �interrogation signal�, transmits a special code. If it�s the right code, the anti-aircraft weapons, or approaching fighters, will know it is friendly and not fire. IFF for ground combat vehicles has been suggested before, but never acted on because of the expense, and the lack of numerous friendly fire incidents. But since the 1991 Gulf War, that attitude has changed. Better American anti-tank weapons, operating at longer ranges, has made friendly fire more of a problem. BTID has performed well in tests but, seven years later, is still not in general use. No one wants to come right out and say it, but the reason is the fear of BTID failure in combat, and distant armored vehicles or pilots not being as cautious as they are now, and opening fire. Then there's the issue of lower than expected friendly fire incidents in those seven years. If it isn't broken, why fix it?

Currently, IFF is handled with Combat Identification Panels (CIP) which are 24 x 30-inch panels that resist absorbing chemical weapons and are covered with a high reflectivity tape. CIPs will show up distinctly when viewed through FLIR (Infrared radar favored by aircraft) or thermal sights (used in armored vehicles). The CIP panels cost about $240 each, and you need five for a tank and three for most other armored vehicles. The use of CIPs prevented a lot of friendly fire in 2003, as did two other simple measures. For night operations, when American troops are using night vision goggles, unarmored vehicles were equipped with Phoenix Junior lights. These flash every two seconds, but at such a low level, you can only see them through night vision goggles. Phoenix Junior lights cost $25 each, and sometimes infantry wore them as well, if there was a chance of friendly fire during a night operation. And then there�s Glo-Tape, which glow at night when viewed through night vision goggles. Each inch square piece of tape costs fifty cents, and each soldier wears four of them, two on the helmet and one on each shoulder.

But in Iraq, the CIPs tended to get covered in the fine dust, and become useless unless constantly washed. The Phoenix Junior lights did not show up in the thermal sights that tanks and other armored vehicles used. So the army developed BTID. While more expensive than CIPs, dust won�t be a problem, and you can install just the transmitter in many non-combat vehicles traveling with a combat unit. This makes them not much more expensive than CIPs.

Meanwhile, BTID is not considered the last word in anti-fratricide (friendly fire) devices. Ultimately, the army and marines want every soldier to carry some kind of electronic device that will tell friendly weapons and commanders where they should not be firing.


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