December 1, 2010  

Fix combat ID

It’s time to commit to funding a fratricide solution

In the spring of 2003, as U.S. troops fought the decisive battles that led to the fall of Saddam Hussein, they also battled an age-old problem of our armed forces: fratricide. In four separate incidents over a three-week period, U.S. troops shot at each other, killing two and injuring 32. A year later, Cpl. Pat Tillman and an Afghan soldier died when Tillman’s fellow U.S. Army Rangers fired on them as they stood on a ridge line in Afghanistan.

The rash of incidents in Iraq was not widely reported by the media, but the death of Tillman, a National Football League star who volunteered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, became the most widely known fratricide case to date.

Regrettably, the mainstream media paid more attention to the details of the Tillman incident rather than to its root cause, which was the absence of identification technology for dismounted troops.

The U.S. military tested new identification technologies after the Tillman incident, but a combat ID solution has not been fielded to date. Dismounted troops still lack a nonsubjective way to identify friendly forces in their optical weapon scopes — the reason Tillman and his fellow Rangers resorted to waving their arms and shouting for the shooting to stop. It is time for the U.S. military to resolve this longstanding problem by funding one or more of the technical solutions put forward by the defense industry.

Because we feel this issue is so important to the U.S. military and its allies, Cubic and other companies are developing prototypes for the 2011 Bold Quest coalition combat ID capability assessment without research funding from the government.

Most corporations will only fund internal R&D for a project for so long before shareholders demand to see a return. The Defense Department needs to set a clear policy direction and allocate research and development funding to enhance the technology readiness levels of the proposed solutions. Most technologies remain at readiness level 5, two levels below readiness for operations. This is not due to engineering challenges but because of questions over whether the Defense Department ever intends to buy the technology.

Much of the combat ID budget over the past decade has been spent on programs like the $400 million Battlefield Target Identification initiative, which seeks to prevent the occupants of ground vehicles from firing on each other. This technology was born out of the 1991 Desert Storm operation against Iraq and does not address the “platform to soldier” and “soldier to soldier” domains. Meanwhile, our front-line troops have been left with little to no combat identification funding.

For dismounted forces, avoiding fratricide has meant relying on low-tech noncooperative target identification, which means affixing panel markers on vehicles and reflective tape on helmets and uniforms to make friendly forces visible in infrared scopes or cameras. These are Band-Aid solutions for a problem that cries out for a real solution instead of investing resources in real solutions. Non-Cooperative Target ID was labeled as the least capable combat ID solution in a guidance document issued by the deputy secretary of defense after a September meeting of the Pentagon’s Deputy’s Advisory Working Group, or DAWG.

The fog of war and human factors mean that it will be impossible to eliminate all fratricide. There will be no single, silver-bullet solution. But that should not preclude our military leaders from exploring all options being developed through industry partnerships to reduce incidents of fratricide.

Our proposed solution centers on embedding an optical communications system called the Dismounted Combat Identification-Target Locator/Navigator into a combat scope. Quarter-sized reflective tags would be stitched into the helmets and perhaps the uniforms of all deployed American troops. If a soldier spotted a mysterious figure, he would look into the scope and press a button to send an encoded message in a pulse of light toward the object. If the object were a friendly soldier, the laser pulse would detect and interrogate the tags on the soldier’s helmet or uniform, triggering them to respond with the soldier’s ID in the form of an optical return signal. The word “FRIEND” would flash in the scope’s crosshairs. If the soldier was not wearing tags, the scope would read “UNKNOWN.” The tags and the scope can be programmed with a hand-held device to embed a “code of the day.”

Mistaken visual identification is not the only cause of fratricide by dismounted troops, and for that reason our scopes include GPS receivers and software that calculates the distances to targets and displays their locations by alphanumeric code. In addition to this far-target location capability, troops would be able to rapidly “self-locate” and report their positions accurately to other troops, perhaps automatically via radio link.

This addresses the problem of units straying out of assigned sectors, reporting wrong locations, and becoming disoriented. When a disoriented unit suddenly encounters a friendly unit, the results can be deadly. This was evident in the Tillman investigation, which concluded that the Rangers who accidentally shot Tillman “failed to maintain situational awareness” at key moments of the battle.

Similar cases occurred in Iraq twice in one week as U.S. forces pushed toward Baghdad. Marine units mistakenly fired on nearby U.S. troops, drawing return fire that injured 32 Marines, two of them critically. These mistakes could have been avoided if our combatants were armed with a far-target locator and scope capable of identifying friend or unknown targets. Obtaining accurate location and the proper technology to radio both current and suspected enemy locations are missing links in the soldier’s tool kit.

As always, the war fighter must still make the final determination whether to engage the entity, based on friend or unknown status and the rules of engagement. But two potential sources of error — visual misidentification and location mistakes — would be eliminated.

If nothing else, fratricide statistics should inspire the Defense Department to action. Fifty-eight percent of total fratricide casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have occurred from air-to-ground fires and 30 percent occurred from ground fires on dismounts, according to statistics reported by Joint Forces Command’s Friendly Fire Reporting and Investigation Process. This is a shift from the 1991 Desert Storm operation, in which 67 percent of fratricide events were blamed on ground platforms, such as tanks and light armored vehicles, firing at other ground platforms. Bottom line: Our least-armored combatants, dismounted troops, are receiving the most friendly fire.

We understand the scope of commitment we are asking the government to make. Combat ID is an all-or-nothing proposition. Partial fielding of combat ID technology will only prove to increase fratricide, not decrease it, as war fighters will not be able to distinguish who is equipped and not equipped with the technology. But the choice is clear: Either continue to turn a blind eye to fratricide and risk a repeat of the Tillman incident, or address the problem with our finest resources.

This is a solvable problem. Hard decisions will be called for, but a strategy developed with military and industry input, coupled with informed and effective leadership and adequate resources, will set the conditions for fielding the combat identification technology that the troops deserve. AFJ

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg is the senior vice president of Ground Systems for Cubic Defense Applications. Tom Potendyk is a retired Marine Corps master sergeant and the director of Marine Corps programs for Cubic Defense Applications.