When two American A-10 warplanes strafed a convoy of British tanks with cannon fire in the early hours of the US-led invasion of Iraq, it was a tragedy for the families of the soldiers killed and wounded as well as for the pilots who thought they were attacking enemy forces.
But such fratricide – casualties caused by "friendly fire" – is also relatively unusual for modern warfare.
"It's certainly not as catastrophic as it was in World War II," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "The problem is that all this talk about precision warfare has raised public expectations impossibly high."
In just a generation – from Vietnam to today's wars – "smart bombs" guided by lasers and satellites plus advanced means of detection and communication have greatly reduced losses due to battlefield fratricide. In Europe, North Africa, and Asia in the 1940s, they numbered in the tens of thousands among the allies; today they are a relative handful among overall coalition casualties. But the death of British Lance Cpl. Matty Hull in that 2003 attack, and the recently leaked video documenting the incident, illustrates fratricide can still occur.
"The fog of war has partially lifted as soldiers and airmen have acquired wireless communications, overhead sensors, global positioning devices and other information technologies," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. Digital communications networks like the Army's Blue Force Tracker and the Air Force's Link-16 have greatly reduced the danger of fratricide, also called "blue-on-blue" casualties.
"However, technology is a double-edged sword in modern warfare because it accelerates the pace of battle to a point where anyone not on the network is in mortal danger," adds Mr. Thompson. "The British troops killed and wounded by US pilots in 2003 were at the forward edge of a fast-advancing force, and lacked the communications gear needed to communicate directly with A-10 attack planes."
The British tanks the US pilots struck in Basra on March 28, 2003, had orange panels on them meant to signal their coalition status. But as retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner points out, "that was the method used during the invasion of Normandy in 1944."
In the cockpit recording of the minutes leading up to the attack and its horrifying aftermath, the American pilots can be heard twice asking whether any "friendlies" were in the area. "You are well clear of friendlies," ground controllers told them. After a US military investigation that included British officials, the pilots were exonerated and returned to flying status. But after cockpit video was leaked and shown on the website of a British tabloid Tuesday, US officials said they would release the tape to the family and a coroner investigating the soldier's death. The military usually keeps such videos classified.
While the overall number of friendly-fire casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 is not as high as in World War II or Vietnam, when they were estimated to have been about 15 percent, the fog of war is no less a problem.
In the Gulf War in 1991, 35 of the 148 US combat deaths (and nine of the 47 among British forces) were due to friendly fire. Early in today's war, US Army antiaircraft missiles shot down American and British aircrafts. British tankers fired on one another. In the most infamous incident, US Army ranger Pat Tillman, who had been a professional football star, was accidentally shot and killed by his fellow soldiers.
In April 2002, US F-16 fighters flying at night over Afghanistan dropped bombs on what they thought was an enemy antiaircraft site. The target turned out to be coalition forces conducting a military exercise. Four Canadian soldiers were killed.
Following a military inquiry, one of the pilots was found guilty of dereliction of duty, reprimanded, and fined $5,700. The official reprimand said the pilot had "flagrantly disregarded a direct order," "exercised a total lack of basic flight discipline," and "blatantly ignored the applicable rules of engagement."
But in most friendly-fire cases, and aside from questions about whether the war is necessary or not, accidents rather than criminal actions are the most probable cause.
"I do believe in strict adherence to military rules of engagement and the safeguarding of noncombatants," says national security analyst Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute. "But war should not become a total legalistic quagmire. If they recklessly and flagrantly violated the rules of engagement, that might be a case where prosecution is needed. But errors do happen, even by well-intentioned people."
In the cases involving Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and Lance Corporal Hull in Iraq, military authorities have been criticized for not being forthcoming about the circumstances of their deaths.
"If a war is worth having young men and women go off to fight and die in it, then the government ought to be upfront about the facts associated with each death," says retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a military analyst with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quaker lobby in Washington.
In federal court in Boston this week, the widow of a US Navy pilot whose fighter jet was struck by a US Army Patriot antiaircraft missile during the invasion of Iraq sued Raytheon Co., charging that the maker of the air defense system was negligent.