Friendly Fire

Dec. 1, 1991

When Air Force pilots fly close air support (CAS) missions in the future, they will have the benefit of new air-to-ground training based on the hard-won lessons of the Persian Gulf War–in particular, ways to prevent losses from “friendly fire.”

Today, the wartime experience of A-10 and F-16 aircrews is being used to shape preparations for fast-paced, nonstop, round-the-clock warfare of the kind that promises speedy victory with limited casualties. Improvisations and innovations developed by pilots in the forty-three-day war will be studied for years.

The war was hardly over before the armed forces began tinkering with doctrine, exploring new technologies, and updating tactics to reduce the risk of friendly tire the next time. One Tactical Air Command analysis credits CAS planes with “contributing to the destruction” of 3,500 tanks, 2,600 artillery pieces, and 2,400 armored vehicles. Their elimination as factors in the war spared the coalition potentially high casualties.

At the same time, it became clear that the ferocity of the American-led air, ground, and sea campaign carried a price in terms of accidental strikes on friendly forces, especially on the ground, where some 10,000 US and Iraqi armored vehicles faced off against each other. Mistaken identification by American ground units and aircraft, coupled with malfunctions of certain weapons, caused death or injury for 107 Americans during the short-lived conflict. In addition, twenty-two Britons were killed or wounded in accidental attacks by American forces.

Analysts are still debating the significance of the latest friendly fire losses. One clear cause of the high percentage of fratricide was the absence of sustained enemy resistance. Friendly fire claimed a disproportionate share of the relatively low number of American casualties.

Missions flown by CAS aircraft accounted for a big chunk of the Air Force’s 65,000 sorties and played a crucial role in demolishing Iraqi weapons. In theater, 132 A-10s and twelve OA-10s flew 7,175 sorties and 249 F-16s flew 13,500 sorties.

So successful was the CAS effort that allied ground forces were able to sweep hundreds of miles across Kuwait and southern Iraq in 100 hours, using only a fraction of the CAS missions that could have been employed. During this brief ground war, USAF pilots flew 1,485 of the total of 4,500 allied sorties narrowly defined as CAS. The rest were flown by Army, Navy, Marine, and allied aviators.

Seventeen Percent

During the war, friendly tire casualties represented seventeen percent of the total of 615 US servicemen and -women killed or wounded in Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Storm. In the past, friendly fire losses accounted for “something less than two percent of all casualties in battle,” according to a landmark study of 269 instances of fratricide in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The study was completed in 1982 by Army Lt. Col. Charles R. Shrader for the Army Combat Studies Institute at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The Air Force, in an official Gulf War analysis released in September, put the matter this way: “The loss or injury of any military member is at once tragic and regrettable, but the casualties sustained by the United States in the Gulf War must be considered in light of what they could have been–and what some had predicted they would be, before the war–had the bulk of Saddam Hussein’s forces been fit, supplied, intact, and in place, awaiting the onset of the ground operation. That they weren’t was primarily due to the success of the air campaign.”

“If we had plodded along methodically, conservatively, and hadn’t gone after them in the highly aggressive manner that we did, the [overall] casualty rate would have been significantly higher,” said Marine Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The very means by which we won the victory did cause to some extent the battlefield situation that resulted in some of these incidents.” Moreover, “having a ground war of only 100 hours is so far out on the edge of experience that you expect anomalies,” said Charles Hawkins, executive vice president of the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization, of Fairfax, Va. “There were lots of nervous airmen, lots of nervous soldiers. Once you have experience fighting, the little tricks of identification start being developed.”

The tally of friendly fire was far more accurate than in past wars, as well. Damage assessment teams reached destroyed M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles within days of their destruction and were able to confirm friendly fire due to telltale traces of depleted-uranium rounds used only by American forces.

Had such postwar accounting been available in the past, the two percent estimate of friendly fire losses might never have gained currency. Mr. Hawkins, formerly a platoon leader and rifle company commander in the 101st Airborne Division, went back through casualty reports from one battalion during a four-month period of the Vietnam War in 1970. He found that more than thirteen percent of battlefield losses were due to friendly fire. Other analysts, however, attribute the higher rate of friendly fire losses to the intensity of modern maneuver warfare. Had the ground offensive dragged on for two to three weeks, as originally predicted by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, with several thousand casualties, friendly tire losses might still have been a large share of the losses, these experts contend.

“There’s been a revolution on the battlefield,” said James A. Blackwell, Jr., a former Army officer and now deputy director of political-military studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D. C. “The application of precision guided munitions and information processing gives a new dimension to the opportunities for friendly fire that we didn’t anticipate.”

The Final Tally

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Homer, the commander of Central Air Forces and the air boss of the Gulf War, notes that the impact of a single modern weapon gone astray can be catastrophic. “If an incident happened in World War II or Korea, you had a guy with a shrapnel wound,” observes General Homer. “Now you have large numbers of KIA [killed in action] and WIA [wounded in action] .”

In its final tally, the Pentagon identified more than two dozen incidents of fratricide.

• On land, US ground units launched seventeen inadvertent attacks on American and British ground forces. These attacks killed eighty-one Americans and two Britons. These seventeen misguided attacks also destroyed twenty-seven US MlAl tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles–fully seventy-seven percent of the Army’s materiel losses.

• In the air, US Air Force and Marine Corps fighters and one Army helicopter carried out ten mistaken strikes on friendly troops. They killed or injured twenty-six Americans and twenty British servicemen.

• One USAF Maverick antitank missile, launched from an A-10, apparently lost its lock on an Iraqi target, went awry, and destroyed a Marine armored vehicle, killing seven Marines and wounding two others. In the war, US forces launched 5,278 Mavericks.

• Evidently, at least four AGM-88 high-speed antiradiation missiles “flexed” target frequencies en route to Iraqi targets and picked up secondary targets, which happened to be US radars. The HARMS struck two US ground sites, killing one Marine and wounding three others. On two other occasions, HARMS exploded near US warships but caused no casualties. US forces fired more than 1,000 HARMS.

The worst air-to-ground incident of the war occurred when two US A-10 pilots, confident they were over the Iraqi armored column they were to attack, Bred Maverick missiles against what turned out to be thirty-seven British Warrior armored vehicles parked in the Iraqi desert. The daylight attack killed nine British soldiers and wounded eleven.

A five-month British inquiry attributed “no blame or responsibility” to British forces and “did not establish” whether the US pilots “were at fault .” General Homer said that the US investigation established that the pilots believed they were in “the right place” while the ground forces believed the pilots “knew where they were.” Said General Homer, “Obviously, it broke down. [But] you could not present a case before a jury and get anybody convicted on this, I guarantee you that.”

Reducing the Risk

In advance of H-Hour last January 17, each armed service tried desperately to reduce the risks of friendly fire. The realization that 3,529 American tanks and combat vehicles would be fighting side-by-side with Syrian and Egyptian units using Soviet-built tanks that resembled Iraqi vehicles stirred an all-out effort. Fluorescent orange air recognition panels were added to combat vehicles, as were luminescent painted “V’s and more than 15,000 off-the-shelf infrared beacons known as “Bud lights.” The Army rushed more than 7,500 handheld satellite navigation devices into the field to combat chronic confusion over units’ locations on the trackless desert.

The Air Force used the five-month deployment to adapt to the special challenges. The basics of CAS “did not change,” recalled Air Force Col. Thomas J. Lyon, a veteran of eighteen A-10 missions in southwest Asia as deputy commander of the 23d Tactical Fighter Wing and now the man who handles joint USAF-Army matters at Tactical Air Command Headquarters, Langley AFB, Va. “The buildup gave us a great opportunity to refine the things that we were doing on a day-to-day basis.”

Of the 16,233 sorties flown by A-10s from the outset of Desert Shield in August 1990 to the end of Desert Storm on February 28,1991, fifty-seven percent were flown before hostilities began. This was part of an unprecedented in-theater training operation to prepare and adapt US forces for the coming conflict. The Air Force honed air-to-ground coordination with the traditionally self-reliant Marine Corps to help strengthen the leathernecks’ two-pronged assault through the Saddam Line of minefields and bunkers into southern Kuwait. Existing close air coordination procedures were rehearsed with Army forces. More than 2,000 forward air controllers eventually moved out with coalition ground units.

Air Force pilots improvised to provide ground forces the nighttime CAS they would need if Iraqi forces fought to hold Kuwait. “We found out very quickly that we needed to be there at their request day and night,” said Colonel Lyon, who accumulated 350 combat hours in southeast Asia. “We had known it for years, but it just came home to us a lot quicker over there.”

Aircrews fashioned night warfare capability for the venerable A-10s by using the Maverick’s cockpit targeting display screen as a rudimentary night vision device. It was like “looking through a soda straw,” Lyon recalled, but it worked. “We did some very innovative things over there out of necessity.”

The A-10s altered tactics to deal with a stubborn, unpredictable Iraqi surface-to-air threat that dogged the slow-flying jets. The two-ship, cover-and-attack approach favored by F-15s and F-16s for night operations was adopted by the A-10s, with one pilot spotting the target from a higher altitude and watching for antiair activity during his partner’s strike before the planes switched roles.

Updating Procedures

When the war ended, the armed forces turned almost immediately to the task of revising doctrine and updating force training procedures.

In an interim postwar assessment last July, the Pentagon identified the underlying problem: Despite more than five months of coordination and efforts to mark thousands of tanks and armored combat vehicles, “the procedures and materiel used by coalition forces were only marginally effective” against friendly fire. The report added, “We have yet to devise a cost-effective approach to achieving improved identification procedures.”

In the Air Force, service leaders looked to doctrine, technology, and training to improve combat effectiveness and help cut the risk of air-to-ground fratricide.

Gen. John M. Lob, TAC’s commander, reached agreement last August with Army Gen. John W. Foss, outgoing commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) at Fort Monroe, Va., on an “umbrella concept” for updating doctrine for air-land operations. Desert Storm added momentum to an ongoing effort to join the services at the outset of a cumbersome process that will shape everything from peacetime training and weapons acquisition to wartime tactics.

“Instead of the Army going off on one tangent and the Air Force going off on another tangent,” said Army Capt. Joe Curtin, a TRADOC spokesman, “we’re getting together on how we’re going to fight in the future.”

The most significant postwar developments, however, are a series of changes that will enhance training opportunities for CAS pilots to work more closely with ground forces under realistic conditions, including night warfare.

Allied operations proved that CAS remains “a very critical mission” for the Air Force that “requires a great deal of training and interoperation with the Army,” said General Loh. “It’s a tough, difficult mission to conduct–one of the toughest. Therefore, we need to train harder and harder at it and equip our aircraft with systems that are capable of doing close air support better.”

Officials expect to strengthen the training links between A-10 units and the Army divisions they support–for example, the tie between the 23d Tactical Fighter Wing and the 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized) based at Fort Polk, La., or the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing’s bonds with the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Stewart, Ga.

Six pilots from each A-10 wing linked to Army divisions already serve as air liaison officers (ALOs) within the divisions.

Training With the Army

USAF training with Army units during rotations at the sprawling, 1,000-square-mile National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., is expected to be exempt from steep budget cuts that will be felt elsewhere in the force.

The Air Force also is preparing to consolidate forces to train and deploy with quick-reaction Army units, such as the 82d Airborne Division’s Ready Brigade, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. A composite wing of A-10s, F-16s, and C-130 Hercules transports is envisioned at Pope AFB, N.C., to support the XVIII Airborne Corps based at Fort Bragg.

“The Air Force has been accused of not having an appreciation for those guys on the ground the way Marine pilots do,” said Colonel Lyon, who brooks no criticism of his service’s commitment to the CAS mission. “I take that as a service argument. If I fly close air, I may not have an infantry school background [like Marine aviators], but I definitely have an appreciation to do that mission.”

Over the coming year, the Army’s National Training Center will add instruments that enable A-10s and F-16s to “kill” and “be killed” during training exercises, a development that officials say will enable both forces to improve precautions against fratricide.

NTC trainers will be able to assess the results of the 200 to 250 CAS sorties flown during a typical fourteen-day Army training rotation. They will use a computer simulation system like the one used to monitor Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB, Nev. The change will strengthen training for pilots, who fly half of their CAS missions each year at the NTC. Currently, only combat vehicles and helicopters equipped with the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System can accurately track their fire.

The changes may help the Air Force and Army build on the lessons of Desert Storm, which put a premium on knowledge of forces’ locations. “We have to become more aware of how we’re doing our job,” said Colonel Lyon. “The Army has an accountability requirement to tell the Air Force where friendly forces are, as well. These are simple things. We can do it better through training.”

The changes should set the stage for CAS pilots to get the realistic night training they need with Army forces to avert the eleventh-hour adaptations required in the Gulf War. “Learning had to occur fairly quickly over there,” recalls Colonel Lyon. “When we came back, we began moving to enhance our aircraft and to train our pilots for more operations at night.”

Better Equipment

The Air Force is banking on some technical improvements to enhance the effectiveness of CAS missions at night.

A-10s are being upgraded with cockpit lighting compatible with night vision goggles, a target information display on a cockpit screen, and a new low-altitude safety and targeting enhancement package that will provide pilots aural ground-proximity warning, a radar altimeter, improved accuracy for the 30-mm cannon at slant ranges up to 4,000 yards, and an air-to-air aiming feature for the formerly fixed-sight cannon.

F/A-16s are getting a new low-altitude terrain-following system as well as enhanced computer capability to improve the accuracy of bombing and cannon fire. Enhanced night capability is envisioned with forward-looking infrared radar systems.

Eventually, both the F/A-16 and the A-10 are expected to get Automatic Target Handoff Systems to enable ground-based forward air controllers to transmit accurate targeting information via data bursts to the targeting aircraft.

The ground services are moving, too. A task force at TRADOC devoted early efforts to developing identification, friend from foe (IFF) devices for tanks and armored vehicles. The Marines improved positive target identification at the distant ranges of their thermal sights.

The modifications in training, coupled with better equipment, adaptations in tactics, and revisions in doctrine, are intended to overcome the challenges that came to light during the Persian Gulf War. Even so, the campaign to reduce friendly fire losses without diminishing offensive combat effectiveness is expected to take years.

Stewart M. Powell, a national security correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, has covered security affairs for more than a decade while based in Washington and London. He covered Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm on the Arabian peninsula and in Saudi Arabia His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was “They Deliver” which appeared in the August 1991 issue.