Technologies to avoid friendly fire

February 21, 2007

THE video clip makes shocking viewing. Two US fighter pilots are told over the radio that there are no friendly forces in their area.

Reassured by this false information, the pilots dismiss the distinctive orange "friendly" markings on the four tanks beneath them, convinced that they are orange Iraqi rocket launchers. One then attacks, killing British soldier Matty Hull and severely injuring four others.

The clip, leaked to British newspaper The Sun earlier this month, throws into sharp relief the military's failure to tackle the problem of friendly fire. In both the second world war and the Vietnam war, according to US government figures, 15 to 20 per cent of US casualties in combat were the result of friendly fire. And despite advances in GPS satellite navigation and weapons guidance systems the rate had increased to 24 per cent during the first Gulf war in 1990. As Hull's death starkly illustrates, little had changed by the start of the Iraq war a decade later, where the first few months saw a spate of incidents involving friendly fire (see Table, right).

This may be about to change, however, as a number of technologies are emerging that could help reduce the death toll due to friendly fire. Pinpointing the cause of such killings is often difficult, as they can involve a mix of navigational error, incorrect target identification, flawed intelligence and a lack of discipline by pilots and troops. The British inquest into Hull's death resumes on 12 March, after it was suspended when the UK Ministry of Defence refused to let the cockpit video be screened in evidence. Last week, the coroner reluctantly agreed not to show the video in open court. What is clear from the leaked clip is that the forward air controllers, who support ground operations by directing aircraft to their targets and telling pilots where friendly troops are, relied on the pilots' verbal description to work out what they were looking at - and where - and then respond with instructions. This is a time consuming, error-prone process, as pilots' descriptions of their location or what they are seeing can be vague, says Greg Harbin, a director of operations with the US air force's 609th combat operations squadron in South Carolina.

In 2003, when the incident took place, there was no other option, he says. Now, thanks to a simple question posed by Chris Manuel, a forward air controller in Afghanistan in 2002, Pentagon engineers have developed an antifriendly- fire system for aircraft that is already showing some signs of success.

Manuel was frustrated because he could not see exactly what the pilot sees from the cockpit. The problem was solved by putting a video transmitter inside each aircraft's camera pod. As a result of this simple step, the battlefield scene in front of a pilot can now be broadcast to a laptop in the hands of a forward air controller on the ground up to 16 kilometres away. Called Rover - for Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver - the system is vastly improving mission accuracy, Harbin claims.

Using a touch screen, the controller can circle a target vehicle or building and the pilot will see the same thing on their cockpit screen. In the same way friendly forces, or innocent bystanders, can be highlighted and avoided. "We now have the technology to see on the ground what the pilot sees before, say, a bomb is released," says Harbin. There are now more than 1500 Rover kits being used by coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We are working with the British to put Rover video downlinks on their fighters, and forward air controllers there have already used it to great effect," says Harbin. Had Rover been available in 2003, he believes Hull's death might have been avoided, as the controllers would have correctly identified the friendly vehicles the aircraft were targeting.

What's more, the Rover-equipped laptops also have secure wireless internet connections that allow troops to chat online via instant messenger, or access video from aircraft transmitted to portable devices like iPods and PDAs via radio link. This means that even if a controller is forced to leave their vehicle, they can keep in contact with the pilot to ensure they have the correct information. "We are taking advantage of the internet and iPod generation coming though the military," says Harbin. Rover was first tried out in Iraq in 2004, and it is now used in 90 per cent of missions that involve close air support, says Harbin. In those missions, there have been no friendly fire deaths, he says. "I think if it is used properly Rover will virtually eliminate fratricide."

However, air support for ground operations is just one area where troops are at risk from friendly fire. Tank to tank, missile to aircraft and maritime attacks can be just as risky. And at a time when most military operations are carried out by coalitions of nations, it is more important than ever that friendly forces develop compatible "combat ID" systems.

NATO is in the vanguard of such efforts. At its Allied Command Transformation headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, Nick Keen and Joe Chacon are working on a US-led programme which aims to create a ground combat ID system for NATO's member countries. Progress so far has been sluggish. A pan-NATO system was meant to be up and running by 2006 (New Scientist, 5 April 2003, p 4), but homing in on the right technologies has taken longer than expected.

NATO has now narrowed the search down to two anti-friendly fire technologies after testing four in Operation Urgent Quest. These manoeuvres involved NATO and Australian forces and were organised by the UK Ministry of Defence on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, in September 2005. One of the two most promising technologies, the Battlefield Target Identification Device (BTID), is a millimetre-wave radio transceiver for ground vehicles that sends back an ID code, complete with GPS coordinates, when interrogated by another vehicle's device. "We put BTID through a series of battle BTID, vehicles would appear from all angles with no notice. However, it behaved itself and looks very promising," says Keen.

Also tested was a system called Radio Based Combat ID. Unlike BTID, vehicles don't have to be fitted with specialist equipment. Instead, it harnesses the existing GPS-equipped radios in vehicles and aircraft to transmit the ID and position of all friendly vehicles in the area. "Many of the NATO nations have GPS situational awareness built into their radio systems, like the UK's Bowman radio," says Keen. It worked well in tests on ground vehicles and fast jets but the downside is that not every nation has equipped its forces with GPS-based radios. NATO is expected to decide on a system within two years.

In the meantime, NATO vehicles in Afghanistan are already using a non-standard version of the radio ID system. Called the Friendly Force Tracking System (FFTS), it uses on-board GPS receivers to report each friendly vehicle's location by radio. "A central control centre then retransmits all the friendly vehicle locations to all the units in the network," says Chacon.

No one is pretending friendly fire can ever be completely eliminated - especially in ground combat at close quarters. But technologies that enhance location awareness will help reduce it, says Ivan Oerlich of the Federation of American Scientists, who has investigated friendly fire prevention for the US Congress. Oerlich says that purpose-built anti-friendly-fire technologies like BTID are losing out to communications systems like Bowman that also enhance navigation and, by dint of that, improve combat identification. "The friendly fire problem will then be taken care of, because these systems help prevent misidentification," Oerlich says. "Putting GPS radios on all vehicles is a huge tool in fratricide prevention - even though it might not look like one."

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Author: Paul Marks, New Scientist Senior Technology Correspondent.



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