Saturday, August 25, 2007

Friendly fire....

Is not friendly.
A U.S. warplane mistakenly dropped a 225-kilogram bomb on British troops after they called for air support in Afghanistan, killing three soldiers and seriously wounding two others in an accident that could re-ignite debate about America's heavy use of air power.

Friendly fire involving U.S. troops has led to the deaths of three British servicemen in the current Iraq war, but the incident Thursday night was the first confirmed case between the two forces in Afghanistan. British officials said they were investigating the error, which comes amid growing concerns about civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes.

The troops were patrolling northwest of Kajaki, a militant hotspot in southern Helmand province, when they were attacked by Taliban fighters, Britain's Ministry of Defence said in a statement.

"During the intense engagement that ensued, close air support was called in from two U.S. F15 aircraft to repel the enemy. One bomb was dropped and it is believed the explosion killed the three soldiers."

There are a lot of directions anyone could go with this, but it's still fresh and people are still trying to work out what actually happened.

This goes a lot deeper than just this incident. Canada has lost 6 killed to friendly fire in Afghanistan. The British have lost 3 killed in Iraq and now 3 in Afghanistan. In the 1991 Gulf War the British lost 9 men in a single attack by an American A-10 which caused a huge outcry at the time.

In the 1991 Gulf War, during Operation Desert Storm, the Americans stated that 35 of their own troops had been killed and 73 wounded due to blue-on-blue friendly fire exchanges. That didn't include the shooting down of two British Tornado fighter-bombers, which had been transmitting IFF (Identification Friend or Foe), by US Patriot missile batteries.

One of the problems is the lack of a combat identification system to provide precise identification and position of friendly troops. There was one being developed by the US known as Battlefield Combat Identification System (BCIS) and it was in direct response to a known deficiency which surfaced during the 1991 Gulf War - tactical air was moving too fast and releasing ordnance without precise knowledge of the position of the friendly forces which had called them in.

Under the Clinton administration a "Low Rate Initial Production" award was authorized for manufacture and deployment of the BCIS to be tested by the US 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.

That was until the Bush administration came to power. In the fall of 2001, Donald Rumsfeld canceled the program. The reason? Technology.

Rumsfeld, (who believed technology outweighed boots in a combat zone), felt that increased technology in weapons would lead to greater precision in the delivery of ordnance to a specific target and reduce the incidents of fratricide. Except that when the bullets started flying and F-16s started rolling out in self-defence that precision ordnance was still killing friendly troops. Because despite the belief by Rumsfeld that more precise weapons would make ordnance delivery less hazardous to his own troops, as late as 2005 the method of communicating information from a ground controller to a close-air-support attack aircraft had not changed since the Vietnam war.

Rumsfeld's interest lay in delivering a weapons package on an enemy. He showed little concern for the safety of friendly troops. He also failed to grasp that it wasn't the precision guidance of the weapon that was a problem; it was the awareness of the identity of the target. The ordnance went precisely where it was aimed, and sometimes that was at a friendly force which tactical air could not identify.

The US Navy solved the problem with an $800 off-the-shelf strap-on system in their F-14D Tomcats. It transmitted the information from their Litening II targeting and navigation pods to controllers on the ground. Essentially, it gave the ground controller a view of what the aircrew was seeing in the cockpit. All the ground controller needed was a receiver, a hardened portable computer and compatible software to be able to direct an air attack based on what the aircrew was seeing.

What was out there that the US Navy could simply hang off their fighter aircraft? The unmanned Predator drone - which was operated from the ground using the L-3 Rover II terminal. It was such a simple solution that nobody had recognized it before.

Production commenced on the improved Rover III system and the system was installed in various US close-air-support aircraft. On the ground, the controller could see what the Litening targeting pod was seeing or, to simplify matters, could see both the target and what the pilot was seeing. All the controller has to do is line up the views on Rover III screen.

It works so well that there is going to be an improved Rover IV and even a Rover V (size of a cell phone intended for infantry section leaders).

There's only one problem. The British have complained of a shortage of Rover III terminals. Which means they are patrolling and engaging without them.

There is no information to indicate whether the patrol from the 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment, which suffered three killed and two seriously wounded as a result of misdirected air-delivered ordnance was equipped with a Rover III or whether the USAF F-15 was transmitting targeting data.

So, I wonder what other outfits are being sent out to advance to contact with enemy forces without the right gear?

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