‘Friendly Fire’ Toll in Gulf Is Raised to 35 Americans
Nearly one in four American service personnel killed during the Persian Gulf War was felled by errant fire from other U.S. forces, the Pentagon announced Tuesday in a major upward revision of earlier estimates.
Using high-technology methods to detect the chemical traces that U.S. munitions leave behind, investigators concluded that 28 incidents of “friendly fire” claimed the lives of 35 American servicemen and injured another 72, mostly Army personnel.
The new figures are significantly higher than an earlier Pentagon estimate that said six such incidents had caused 11 deaths and 15 injuries. The revisions show that 23% of all U.S. deaths and 15% of the injuries in Operation Desert Storm were attributable to friendly fire.
Senior military officers, responding to the revised estimate, characterized the extent of friendly fire casualties as “too much.” At the same time, they said the fluidity and intensity of the fighting, as well as the ability of U.S. weapons to strike beyond the range of sight, made such incidents a tragic but inevitable consequence of modern warfare.
“If we had plodded along methodically, conservatively, and hadn’t gone after (the Iraqis) in the highly aggressive manner that we did, the casualty rate (from enemy fire) would have been significantly higher,” said Marine Lt. Gen. Martin Brandtner, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “So the very means by which we won the victory did cause to some extent the battlefield situation that resulted in some of these incidents.”
At the same time, Brandtner and other officials conceded that equipment designed to identify U.S. tanks to other forces participating in the Desert Storm coalition had not worked in many cases. The signals emitted by the equipment often could not penetrate the haze, dust, smoke and bad weather that prevailed over the battlefield for much of the conflict, they said.
That fact has spurred the services, under the Army’s lead, to step up work to develop war-fighting procedures and equipment that would allow U.S. forces in future conflicts to recognize each other more quickly. Rather than relying on measures that allow U.S. forces to identify allies through the process of elimination, officials said they hope to develop a means by which allies can positively identify themselves to friendly forces.
“Lack of positive identification of these ground vehicles is the most-often-found cause of these incidents of friendly fire,” said Col. Roger Brown, an assistant in the Army deputy chief of staff’s office in charge of operations, plans and force development. “And we believe that’s one of the things we have to solve in the future.”
Fire from American troops also has been blamed for the deaths of nine British soldiers and the wounding of 13 others.
In interviews soon after the war ended, military officers said it would have been possible to equip American ground weapons such as tanks with radio transponders similar to those used by warplanes to recognize each other. The transponders would identify the ground weapons to U.S. ground and air forces closing in on them.
But officials said such a sweeping move had been rejected in the past because it was considered prohibitively expensive to equip all ground weapons with such beacons.
Brandtner said Tuesday that such means of “positive identification” are “technologically feasible.” He added that he does not believe that “in terms of saving lives . . . money is a factor.”
All but two of the 28 friendly fire incidents identified by Pentagon investigators involved ground units, and virtually all occurred under conditions of poor visibility, officials said. Noting that friendly fire tended to occur when confusion reigned on the battlefield, officials said that in several cases American equipment that was destroyed by U.S. munitions also had been hit by less effective Iraqi rounds.
In one case, however, an armored unit became disoriented in the featureless desert terrain, misidentified an American fortification and attacked it in clear daylight, killing two, wounding nine and destroying three Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
“I’m prepared to tell you that there were mistakes made,” Brown said. Brandtner added, however, that no disciplinary action has been taken against U.S. troops whose errant fire killed or wounded fellow Americans.
In the most lethal friendly fire incident discovered by investigators, six American soldiers were killed and 25 injured on the first night of the ground war when two U.S. armored divisions maneuvered around each other to engage a pair of Iraqi tank columns. In heavy rain and darkness, the tanks and fighting vehicles of one U.S. division began to maneuver for positions inside that of the Iraqis. They were misidentified by members of the other American unit and shelled with tank rounds made of depleted uranium.
The allies’ widespread use of shells made of depleted uranium, which is considered the densest material on Earth, was a key to investigators’ efforts to discern which incidents had involved friendly fire, officials said. When depleted uranium passes through a target, it leaves a telltale trace of radioactivity that can be detected by special equipment.
Officials said that since the most recent investigation was completed and reviewed last Thursday by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, military officers have contacted all but two of the families of those killed by friendly fire to notify them of the circumstances of the deaths. In several cases, however, families said they did not want to know about the evidence.
Pentagon spokesman Robert Taylor said that out of respect for such families’ decisions, the names and units of those killed by friendly fire will not be released.
Some families, however, were volunteering the information. In San Juan Capistrano, Calif., Carol Bentzlin said Tuesday that the Marine Corps had formally confirmed what she had suspected for months--that her husband’s death in the Gulf War was due to allied fire.
Camp Pendleton officials told her earlier in the day, she said, that Cpl. Stephen E. Bentzlin was killed Jan. 29 during the battle for Khafji, a northern Saudi Arabian border town seized by Iraqi troops, when an allied missile mistakenly struck the armored vehicle carrying him and seven other members of his unit.
Times staff writer Kevin Johnson, in San Juan Capistrano, contributed to this article.