Murphy's Law: Friendly Fire in the Baltic Sea


April 2, 2024: In mid-March there was a friendly fire incident in the Baltic Sea, near the Russian Kaliningrad enclave. This area used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of it went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs covered 15,100 square kilometers. Russia renamed the city Kaliningrad and made it a major naval base. Kaliningrad and the port at Saint Petersburg at the eastern end of the Baltic are the only Russian naval bases in the Baltic. All the other territory surrounding the Baltic belongs to NATO countries. This puts the Russian Baltic Fleet at a disadvantage. Despite this the Baltic Fleet is fairly substantial and currently consists of one submarine, one destroyer, two frigates, and 22 corvettes. There are dozens of support ships including landing ships, minesweepers, patrol boats and other auxiliaries.

The friendly fire incident consisted of one of several Russian warships involved in a training exercise accidentally firing two missiles at the Russian fishing trawler Kapitan Lobanov returning to Kaliningrad with a full load of fish and a seven man crew. One sailor was killed, two are missing and four were rescued. The trawler caught fire and eventually sank. The Russian secret police ordered the crew of the warships and the Kapitan Lobanov to remain silent if asked about what happened. That’s why it took several days for news of the incident to become public. Initially the Russian government denied that Russian missiles were involved and insisted Kapitan Lobanov sank for other reasons. Too many people saw what actually happened and details of what actually occurred soon became news.

The most notorious friendly fire incident involving Russian warships occurred in 1904. This was what the British called the Dogger Bank incident. While Russian Baltic Fleet warships were traveling at night towards the Sea of Japan, five British steam powered fishing boats were detected nearby. Russian officers had been warned by their government that they might encounter Japanese torpedo boats moving in at night to attack. The Russians decided the fishing boats were actually Japanese torpedo boats and fired at them. The Russian officers did not stop to consider that the closest Japanese naval base was 30,000 kilometers away. There were rumors that those clever Japanese had managed to move torpedo boats from Japan to the waters off the British coast without anyone noticing. The Russians opened fire on the British fishing boats, sinking one of them and damaging the other four. Three fishermen were killed and six wounded. At the same time two Russian cruisers were fired on by seven Russian battleships that believed the cruisers were actually Japanese. The poorly trained Russian gun crews were unable to hit anything and ceased fire after firing 500 shells. The British public and government were outraged over this incident and Britain mobilized a fleet of 28 warships and dispatched two cruisers to follow the Russian Baltic fleet. British and Russian diplomats managed to prevent this incident from escalating into war

Friendly fire incidents in wartime are often denied or played down. It often takes decades for the details of wartime friendly fire losses to become public knowledge. Friendly fire losses have always been a problem, even in the days before guns. After World War II interviews of veterans found that some 20 percent of U.S. casualties were probably from friendly fire. The official friendly fire rate for World War II was 1.5 percent. 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 firefights gunfire and grenades go every which way and it is often hard to determine who was hit by who. The only witnesses to this sort of thing are reluctant to report it. For one thing, everyone knows 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.

Friendly fire from your own artillery and aircraft was always easier to spot and report. This can be seen from the pattern of officially reported friendly fire casualties from past wars.

In the Gulf War, friendly fire by fellow ground troops was easier to report because most of the losses were from long range tank fire and missiles. In both cases, the target wasn't individual soldiers, but the crews of armored vehicles. It's easier to tell if a vehicle, rather than individual, was hit with an American or enemy weapon, and it was more likely that such a detailed examination would be done of destroyed vehicles. In the Gulf War, the official friendly fire losses were 17 percent of our casualties and the fighting in Afghanistan appears to be producing the same pattern. 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 is possible to get friendly fire losses below 20 percent, it isn't going to be easy. Another problem is that American forces tend to have a lot more firepower. This has been a trend that began during World War II and has simply continued since. Also, combat is still a chaotic process, and things don't always work as planned. While the American armed forces are trying to limit 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. 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. There is no easy solution to the current problem of friendly fire losses, and probably never will be.

Friendly fire incidents during World War II, the 1950-1953 Korean War and the 1965-1973 portion of the Vietnam War were all similar, with wayward airstrikes causing 37 percent of American friendly fire casualties on the ground. Artillery fire caused 36 percent of losses, ground fire between friendly troops caused 22 percent and misdirected anti-aircraft fire caused five percent.

During the 1991 American, British, and French campaign to drive occupying Iraqi forces out of Kuwait the friendly fire losses were distributed differently. Air strikes caused 33 percent of friendly fire casualties, while artillery fire accounted for four percent, ground fire was responsible for 59 percent and anti-aircraft fire four percent.




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