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US Defense Officials Prefer Not to Talk About 'Friendly Fire' Deaths - 2003-03-17

With U.S. forces poised for possible war with Iraq, commanders are bracing for any number of potential disasters. Some they are talking about openly, like Iraq's possible use of chemical or biological weapons or the potential for civilian casualties. In recent days, Pentagon officials have staged a variety of special briefings for reporters as part of their public information preparations for a possible war with Iraq.

The subjects have included the use of satellites and other high-tech gear to ensure precision strikes and thus reduce civilian casualties and collateral damage.

But there has been no mention of the efforts being undertaken to reduce the chances that U.S. forces might kill other American or coalition military personnel by mistake, something the Pentagon calls called fratricide.

In fact, a document obtained by the Voice of America makes clear the military has no plans to bring up the sensitive subject of its own volition.

The document is an Army guidance paper for public affairs specialists. It orders them to adopt what is termed a "passive" posture on the issue, addressing friendly fire or fratricide questions only when asked.

It is, to be sure, an unpleasant subject, but it is one as old as warfare itself.

And military officials admit it is a problem that is likely to occur in any new war with Iraq. The Army guidance paper puts it this way: "warfare is a human endeavor and mistakes will be made."

It goes on to concede "the complete elimination of friendly fire incidents cannot be guaranteed."

It is a point made last year by General Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. Central Command who has overseen operations in Afghanistan and will supervise a new war with Iraq.

"The fact is that we are not ever going to be able to absolutely eradicate the loss of life and in some cases the loss of the wrong life when we're engaged in this kind of operation. Regrettable, but true," said General Franks.

But the Army's new guidance does not stop with the acknowledgment that mistakes will happen. It suggests public affairs specialists make clear to reporters that fear of friendly fire deaths should not inhibit commanders or public support for war. "We must not let reasonable caution evolve into timidity," the document says.

In the 1991 Gulf War, there were 35 deaths among service personnel caused by friendly fire incidents, about a quarter of all U.S. military battle fatalities.

Defense officials say most of those deaths resulted from what is termed target misidentification, incidents in which U.S. forces mistakenly fired on other Americans, thinking they were the enemy.

There were more friendly fire deaths during the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, and not just Americans. Four Canadian soldiers on a training exercise were bombed by U.S. warplanes whose pilots thought they were under fire. The two American pilots are facing criminal charges.

The Army, if asked, will say efforts have been stepped up to develop a reliable combat identification system to decrease the chances of friendly fire on a battlefield.

Officials do not want to give too many details for security reasons, but they say some of the systems being used to improve safety include thermal identification panels, infrared combat beacons, and glow tape, designed chiefly to be affixed to combat vehicles.

Still, the Army press guidance stresses: "The intensity and speed of combat, fear, fatigue, dust, smoke and many other factors contribute to what has been historically called 'the fog of war." Add in possible equipment malfunctions and what the Army describes as "highly lethal weapons systems fired from a variety of air, ground and sea platforms," it is easy to understand why commanders admit that even technical improvements in combat identification may never be enough to prevent all friendly fire deaths.