Despite tech gains, friendly fire poses risk

Monday's accidental bombing in Kuwait is the most recent in a string of incidents.

In the dark of night and with the acrid smoke of battle around them, the reconnaissance scouts found themselves surrounded by enemy forces. In desperation, they radioed their position to the infantry and artillery units a few miles back in safer territory.

Within minutes, the welcome sound of jet aircraft screaming overhead brought relief as the pilots pounded the rocks and sand of the desert. The flash and roar of the bombs and rockets was disconcertingly nearby, but the close air support had made all the difference.

Military training exercises, like this one in the Kuwaiti desert last summer, are designed to be as realistic as possible. Safety is stressed, but the use of real ammunition in close proximity to soldiers on the ground always involves an element of risk.

The accidental bombing of allied military personnel in Kuwait this week, killing six and wounding several others, illustrates the dangers that always attend combat exercises.

Paradox of modern warfare

The incident, which is part of a recent string of military accidents involving loss of life, also illustrates one of the paradoxes of modern warfare: Despite advanced communications, navigation, and weapons-delivery systems, many of those killed in combat and training are lost to "friendly fire."

"You can't protect against everything when you're using live ordnance," says Dan Smith, a retired US Army colonel who is now chief of research at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

Of the 146 Americans killed in action during the Gulf War, almost one-quarter of the fatalities were due to friendly fire, including mines, cluster bombs, and unexploded ordnance. American planes accidentally bombed allied troops, and antitank rockets were accidentally fired at allied vehicles. In the first major battle of the four-day ground war, 11 US marines were killed - seven of them by friendly fire.

The recent spate of military accidents - crashes of the Marine Corps's controversial new tilt-rotor Osprey, the March 3 crash of a C-23 aircraft that took the lives of three crew members and 18 Virginia National Guard troops, and the submarine USS Greeneville collision with a Japanese trawler - come after a year in which the services had one of the safest years on record.

Despite the loss of 19 marines in one Osprey accident, there were 1.23 major aircraft mishaps per 100,000 flight hours during fiscal year 2000, a 20 percent decrease from 1999. Accidents involving privately owned motor vehicles remained the leading cause of death for military members - although even those figures were less than half what they were a decade ago.

But it is the accidents involving training, particularly when they result in multiple loss of life, that the Defense Department works the hardest to prevent.

Details of the accidental bombing in Kuwait this week remain sketchy.

What's known so far

A US Navy F/A-18 Hornet jet aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman was in "intrinsic action" exercises at the Udairi Range, a 35-square-mile desert area about 45 miles from Kuwait and 30 miles from the Iraqi border.

In a nighttime-simulated, close-air-support bombing run, the jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a group of allied observers. Five Americans and one New Zealander were killed. This was not a "smart bomb" guided to the target by laser or an internal mechanism, but an older type "iron bomb" that dates back to the Vietnam era. It is unclear whether the pilot needed to see the target visually or was using radar to acquire and aim at the target.

According to military sources, it is possible that the pilot was given the wrong target coordinates, that he mistook the observation post for the target, or that a mechanical or electrical malfunction caused the bomb to release improperly.

"You can plan, you can train your people, and they can do very well, but the mechanical glitches you can never overcome entirely," says Colonel Smith.

Training does not have to include real bombs, rockets, and bullets. Aircraft target practice, for example, can be done with small bombs that mark the hit with a smoke charge.

No change in plans

But the military services will continue to engage in realistic warlike exercises involving live ammunition.

"No doubt that the training is essential to maintaining readiness, so what they were doing [in Kuwait] is perfectly normal and in fact required," says Phil Gay, a retired naval officer who commanded an F-18 air wing and was in command of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy during the Gulf War.

"Train the way you fight is the current, and I believe correct, mantra of naval aviation," says Mr. Gay. "If you do that, these types of accidents will likely continue to happen, although everyone is doing their best to ensure that they do not."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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