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The Particular Pain of ‘Friendly Fire’ : Why did the rate of these casualties soar in the Gulf War?

The Pentagon has issued sharply revised and, it suggests, definitive figures on Americans killed or wounded by fire from U.S. forces during the Persian Gulf War. Of the 148 service members killed in action, 35 died from so-called friendly fire. Of the 467 wounded, 72 were hit accidentally by their own side. In addition, fire from American forces is known to have killed nine British soldiers and wounded 13.

Every death in war is a tragedy, every wound produces suffering. But casualties resulting from attack by one’s fellows are a source of special pain. Whatever the circumstances of each incident, there is always the sense that what happened was needless, perhaps even avoidable.

RISING INCIDENTS?: The high rate of friendly-fire casualties in the Gulf--nearly 24% among those Americans killed, 15% among those wounded--is prompting new efforts aimed at reducing the risk in future conflicts. The problem of how to differentiate friend from foe amid the confusion and terror of the battlefield is of course ancient; it’s one reason armies adopted distinguishing unit insignia and banners. The advent of high explosives with destructive power covering wide areas greatly expanded the chances of fratricidal casualties. The age of high-tech, long-range weaponry and the startling increase in the velocity of battle have raised those chances even more.

A paper prepared by retired Army Lt. Col. Charles R. Shrader for a 1982 symposium counted 90 friendly-fire incidents in the course of the Vietnam War and 173 in World War II. Though figures are imprecise, it’s been estimated that about 2% of U.S. battlefield casualties in both conflicts resulted from troops coming under fire from their own side. The Pentagon has now tallied 28 incidents in the brief Gulf War in which American forces mistakenly took other American forces under fire. If the counts for earlier wars are correct, it’s clear that the frequency of mistaken attacks has sharply increased.

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GULF LESSONS: Of the 28 incidents, 16 were ground-to-ground engagements and nine were air-to-ground. Most Army casualties involved the crews of armored vehicles, especially of the lightly armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley--nearly 7,000 of the vehicles were built at a cost of about $1.7 million each--was a subject of sharp and frequent congressional criticism in the 1980s. The Pentagon was accused, among other things, of rigging tests to show that it would perform acceptably in combat conditions. Particular questions were raised about the Bradley’s ability to stand up to anti-armor weapons. In an article written for The Times in 1986, Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), then chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that “even in the Army’s own computer simulation, Soviet rocket-propelled grenades can debilitate and destroy the Bradley more often than its predecessor.”

Only four U.S. fatalities in the Gulf War were soldiers on the ground. Most of the incidents occurred at night, and most at long range. “The very things that helped us win battles, that’s also what cost us,” said one senior officer. “It’s a tragedy.”

Indeed it is, and the compelling question is what can be done to lessen the prospect of future tragedies. The military says work is going ahead to improve vehicle identification systems so that one American armored vehicle won’t mistakenly fire on another, and on increasing the battlefield use of satellite navigation devices to pinpoint vehicle locations.

Is more possible? The technical wizardry that the military was able to call on in the Gulf War--not all of which has yet become a matter of public knowledge--suggests that with some effort and investment more could be done. Here is an area where priority research is called for. To its victims, friendly fire is always a conscienceless enemy.

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