War aim: quest to reduce accidental casualties

The US military is turning to better training and new technology to reduce civilian casualties and friendly fire.

Among the many things keeping senior defense officials awake at night are these: Images of a school, mosque or apartment building in Baghdad blasted to pieces and shown on Al-Jazeera television all over the Middle East. Or having to tell the family of an American service member that their son or daughter has been accidentally killed by US forces.

More than ever, collateral damage and friendly fire - the downside of the likely "shock and awe" approach to war with Iraq - is a key part of Pentagon planning these days. New technologies, some of them untried in combat, are being deployed. The services are training to work together better than before. And squads of "combat lawyers" from the Judge Advocate Corps (JAG) have been deployed to the war zone to help make sure that targets of aerial bombing are allowed under international law and accepted rules of combat.

It's not just for humanitarian reasons, although that's important.

It's that keeping Iraq together and functioning after a war is the key to success. The country's civilian population and what's left of its armed forces and political structure, officials say, must be willing and able to organize and rebuild under temporary occupation by foreign (mostly US) troops. And a big part of keeping those troops effective after any war means doing everything to avoid what the military calls "fratricide" on the battlefield.

"Bad things will still happen on the battlefield," says a senior defense official. "But if we are asked to use military power in Iraq, our intent is to ensure that we keep those bad effects to the minimum."

A poor record

The history of recent conflicts in this regard is sobering.

About one-fourth of all US combat deaths in the Persian Gulf War were the result of friendly fire. In one particularly notable incident, 408 Iraqi civilians were killed in the bombing of what turned out to be an air-raid shelter. More recently, there have been friendly fire accidents in Afghanistan; some 1,300 civilians are estimated to have been killed there.

"The unpalatable truth is that at least as many civilians as Al Qaeda operatives [in Afghanistan] may have been killed by Western air strikes," Jane's Intelligence Review reported recently.

Preventing - or at least limiting - collateral damage in Iraq will involve several things.

• A much higher percentage of precision-guided weapons - up from 10 percent in the last Gulf War to 60-70 percent now. Many of these weapons are guided by satellite coordinates, which means that they do not need to "see" the target as laser-guided weapons do. It also means that with a better "circular error probable" (CEP) or average miss-distance, smaller warheads can be used.

• Use of a new computer-modeling program (nicknamed "bugsplat") that helps mitigate bomb blast by figuring out fragmentation patterns based on such things as the direction and angle at which the bomb is falling.

• Choosing "target sets" that exclude some "dual-use" facilities (such as certain power grids and bridges) that have both military and civilian value.

• Use of new nonlethal weapons that render power supplies, communications, and computers inoperable.

No absolute promises

"I don't want to say there will be no casualties," says the senior defense official, who is part of the US Central Command overseeing military activity in the Persian Gulf region. "But there is a very good way to try to keep the number of casualties and the damage to the minimum."

The goal, he adds, is to make sure "no matter what we do militarily, that we not create a situation where, after the war, you lose the peace." And that means avoiding the "CNN effect" - broadcasts of civilian casualties and collateral damage.

The "embedding" of hundreds of reporters with US troops is another way the Pentagon hopes to keep the record straight on any civilian casualties that could occur, in particular those that might be deliberately caused by the Iraqi regime in order to portray the United States in a bad light.

"International law draws a clear distinction between civilians and combatants," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently. "Saddam Hussein makes no such distinctions. He deliberately constructs mosques near military facilities, uses schools, hospitals, orphanages, and cultural treasures to shield military forces."

At issue: morale of the troops

News of friendly-fire incidents - which were unusually high as a percentage of overall casualties in the Gulf War (including some 70 percent of all US casualties in tank battle) - is demoralizing as well.

This time, new technologies are available to reduce such casualties, including infrared beacons, thermal panels visible through night-vision sights, and glow tape to identify friendly troops, tanks, and other equipment. Many more units (and even individuals) will have Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some ground forces will be able to use laptop computers to quickly exchange digital photos and live video with attack aircraft overhead. All of this is designed to provide better "situational awareness" in the kind of nonlinear, fluid, and very dangerous battles that could take place in Iraq.

There also has been much more joint training since the last Gulf War in "close air support" - fighter and attack aircraft called in to lay down ordnance near allied ground forces. "We haven't done intense close-air support since Vietnam," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper recently told Aviation Week & Space Technology.

What US forces won't have is a "Battlefield Combat Identification System" - devices allowing tanks and other vehicles to electronically query and identify each other. Because of its cost, the program was removed from the Army's budget in 2002.

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