Eliminating Fratricide In Ground Combat

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The risk of fratricide has always been a consequence of warfare. Preventing such misshapes from occurring, especially in ground-to-ground and air-to-ground, is one of the major tasks in the conduct of modern warfare. According to US Army TRADOC Fratricide Action Plan, “Fratricide is the employment of friendly weapons and munitions with the intent to kill the enemy or destroy his equipment, or facilities, which result in unforeseen and unintentional death or injury to friendly personnel.”

Implementing this basic doctrine seems at first glance, simple enough:

  • Keep track on your own forces constantly reporting their movement and location to controlling command posts.
  • Determine where the enemy is located, through real-time intelligence
  • Discriminate through optical sight between friend and foe
  • When positive identification established: Shoot-to Kill!

In military terms this is called: Situational Awareness
Unfortunately, putting this in practice is one of the more complex operations. There are several factors which dominate every combat situation

  • Modern military offensive operations are conducted at relatively high speed and “round-the-clock”, sometime moving over featureless terrain under limited visibility conditions, such as fog, smoke, sandstorm dust or rain. Much of the combat is shoot-on-the-move engagement on fleeting targets of opportunity, at long acquisition ranges.
  • Especially in desert fighting environment, the virtually unrestricted combat ranges usually outstrip the gunner’s ability to determine positive target identification, even through advanced thermal sights.
  • Real-time accurate knowledge of one’s own location, location of friendly, or enemy forces is affected, not only by limited visibility conditions, but also due to disorientation and even through lack of time to report continuously, by commanders fully engaged in running-combat fire-fights.

This lack of positive target identification and the inability to maintain situational awareness in combat environment are the major contributors to fratricide. All these ingredients became part of the Blue-on Blue incidents during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Experience in Iraq 2003 clearly indicates that modern combat is still a very dangerous business. Ironically, the nature of modern warfare, however technologically advanced, has raised the risk of fratricide. Combat aircraft fly faster, tank gunnery fires at longer ranges, the lethality and precision of advanced munitions leave little margin for error and rarely miss their target, whether hostile or friendly. Technology does not eliminate the human error on the battlefield and the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the tactical commander to carry out his mission with minimum casualties for his men, and this includes situational awareness to reduce the risk of fratricide through constant real-time control of his forces. The moral effects of fratricide can be devastating to fighting troops. It can undermine the confidence in leadership, cause hesitation to carry out orders and degrade unit cohesion.

Unfortunately, technology does not eliminate human error, “carelessness will kill your buddies”, goes the old saying. In the words of veteran US Colonel David Hackworth: “fear, nervousness, excitement and exhaustion numb the mind and cause miscommunication and misunderstandings. These circumstances are a recipe for error”. Colonel David O. Bird chief of Army material Command Fratricide Task Force commented: “There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution that will do everything we want to”. It goes without saying, that a lot of money and scientific ingenuity will have to be spent, until some of such ever tragic loss will become history.

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