In early February, I listened to the coverage of the British inquest for Lance Corporal Matty Hull's death by friendly fire in Iraq. Hearing the cockpit audio was chilling—we've got the most advanced weaponry and communications we've ever had, and we still can't avoid friendly fire incidents. However, according to this recent story in the New Scientist, a new approach may make the battlefield a smidge safer.
The History of Friendly Fire
For an excellent discussion of so-called friendly fire, I point you to the research study "Amicicide: The problem of friendly fire in modern war," by Charles Schrader, written for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He studied available friendly fire incidents from World War I through Vietnam and I'll quote from his conclusion:
"The evidence examined in this study points clearly to one factor as the primary cause of most amicicide incidents: direct human error. Only rarely were such incidents due to mechanical failure, but in innumerable cases the incident resulted from some identifiable human failure. The nervousness of green troops, a lack of control or of fire discipline imposed by calm and decisive leaders, the lack of adequate coordination of operations by commanders and staff officers, and disorientation, confusion, and carelessness of pilots, gunners, or crewmen were the predominant causes of most incidents. Fear and the fog of battle have conspired to produce the amicicide incidents described in this study. Surprisingly few incidents can be traced to a genuine misidentification of friendly for enemy troops. Almost always a lack of coordination or some more direct human error was responsible for the engagement of friendly forces by their supporting air, ground, or artillery weapons."
We know, from the investigation into Hull's death, that the American fighter pilots were wrongly informed by the forward air controllers that there were no friendlies in the area, and so opened fire on the convoy, killing Hull and wounding four others. Now, thanks to a specialized video transmitter, those forward air controllers can see the same battlefield scene that the pilots see, as the pilots see it. Developed by the Pentagon's engineers, the Rover (remote activated video enhanced receiver) is installed in the camera pods of the aircraft and broadcasts the video to a forward air controller's laptop.
The video is great, but there's an additional lagniappe—the secure wireless transmissions between the Rover laptops allow troops to chat via instant messenger or access video transmitted to portable devices (think iPods or PDAs) via radio links, staying in touch with the pilots. In the rapidly evolving conditions of war, staying in touch is a very good thing. More than 1500 Rover kits are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq. "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 Greg Harbin, a director of operations for the USAF's 609th combat operations squadron in South Carolina. "In those missions, there have been no friendly fire deaths," he says. "I think if it is used properly Rover will virtually eliminate fratricide."
This isn't the only tactic being used to reduce friendly fire incidents. NATO has homed in on two methods. One method uses millimeter-wave radio transceivers that transmit an ID and GPS coordinates when queried by another vehicle's device; the other uses existing GPS-equipped radios in vehicles to transmit the ID and position of all friendly vehicles in the area. Both methods seem to be effective, although testing is ongoing.
Situational Awareness for Everyone
The name of the game is situational awareness: Who's here? Where are you? Do you know where I am? Do you know who I am? That coupling of ID and location information seems to be cropping up with increasing frequency. Companies track products, equipment, and resources; emergency services locate people in need of help; farmers develop a more holistic view of what's happening in their fields; and hospitals and residential care centers keep track of wander-prone residents.