Attrition: A Rare Friendly Fire Incident Explained

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November 14, 2014: In late October the U.S. Air Force revealed that the officer who misdirected a smart bomb that killed American and Afghan soldiers last June, had since left the air force. This June 9th incident left five U.S. Special Forces soldiers and an Afghan soldier dead because a GPS guided bomb was called in to the wrong location in Afghanistan. It was concluded that the cause of the accident was misunderstandings and communications problems between the B-1B bomber that dropped the JDAM bomb and the JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, who call in air strikes) officer on the ground. The air force also noted that the four man crew of the B-1B had been grounded since the incident because of their mistakes.

The B-1B crew screwed up because the Sniper targeting pod they were using to see what was down there (in great detail) did not have the ability to detect the infrared device that all friendly units carry. This device emits an infrared (invisible without special viewing equipment) flash periodically to let friendly aircraft know where the good guys are. The B-1B crew thought their Sniper pod could see the flashes when in fact it could not. That meant that the smart bomb was going to hit enemy troops who were too close to some friendly personnel. The JTAC also did not have a clear idea of where all the friendlies were. Keeping track of who was where was why you had JTACS on the ground with the combat troops. This JTAC was not doing his job.

Other interesting details eventually emerged. First there was the JTAC officer, who it turned out had a record of poor performance and making mistakes and had already been told, before the incident, that he was being “involuntarily separated” (“laid off”, “fired”). It was also revealed that this JTAC was assigned to this mission at the last minute because the fellow who was supposed to go out could not make it. All this is embarrassing for the air force because the incident report will have to make specific suggestions for what needs to be changed to prevent more accidents like this. In this case the air force kept a JTAC on the job even though they knew he was unreliable. This is even more embarrassing when you realize that the army and marines have been feuding with the air force a long time over who should be allowed to act as a JTAC. The air force insists that it must be an air force officer. The army and marines point out that they have plenty of their own personnel qualified for this sort of thing.

The problem with all this is that air force JTACs are always in short supply. For example, in 2010 the air force needed over a thousand JTACS, and only 526 were then on duty. One of the aftereffects of that crises was the air force holding on to officers, like the one involved in the June incident, who were mediocre. For a JTAC, being mediocre can be fatal to the troops you are supporting.

The U.S. Air Force had long had problems holding on to their JTACs. This was especially true after 2011, when JTACs were suddenly spending a lot of time in combat. This led to years when over 40 percent of JTACS were leaving the air force as soon as they could, choosing not to make it a career. This despite being offered bonuses of up to $90,000 to stay in. JTACs were also difficult to recruit and train. The work is exacting and dangerous. For example, between 2004 and 2012 JTACs were spending most of their time overseas with army units. The combat duty is stressful, and many JTACs complained that they joined the air force, but spend most of their time with the army. The persistent shortage has made the overseas tours longer and more numerous for the few JTACS who were available and that hurt JTAC morale still further. In 2009 the air force set out to increase the number of JTACs to nearly 1,100 by 2013. That goal was not achieved, even though standards were lowered. One positive development was the sharp drop in demand for JTACs in Iraq after U.S. forces departed in 2012. This allowed the air force to raise standards, but that came too late for the victims of the June friendly fire incident.

Meanwhile the air force continues trying to make mistakes by JTACS less likely by using more technology. Thus in the last decade it has become more common for electronic devices to be used to call in smart bomb attacks. One example of this is the new laser designator U.S. Army Special Forces troops have been receiving. The PEQ-1C SOFLAM is a 5.2 kg (11.3 pound) hand held device that looks like boxy binoculars with two round lenses off to one side. It’s a 28.5 x 33.6 x 13.1 cm (11.2 x 13.2 x 5.2 inches) device that can determine range up to 20 kilometers away and designate targets over ten kilometers distant via a coded laser beam. It can be mounted on a tripod and operates off internal battery or vehicle power. Unlike earlier devices the PEQ-1C has fewer parts, is more reliable and draws less power. Devices like the PEQ-1C are used by Special Forces teams or forward air controllers to mark targets for laser guided bombs or missiles. This device is also exported.

Many armies prefer even smaller, if less capable, devices. For example, the French Army uses the JIM LR 2 which looks more like traditional binoculars. There are four, instead of two, round glass windows in the front, and the usual two eyepieces in the back. The controls are electronic, not mechanical. The zoom equipped stabilized binoculars also include infrared (night vision) electronics, as well as a laser rangefinder (max range of 5,000 meters) GPS, digital compass, a laser designator (max range of 10,000 meters), and communications systems to transmit coordinates of targets. The binoculars can also record video and still images. Weighing about 3 kg (6.7 pounds), one battery charge lasts four hours. Individuals can be detected at 5,000 meters and identified at about 900. Vehicles can be spotted at 8,600 meters and identified at 1,700.

Since 2001 electronic binoculars like the JIM LR 2 have become more common. With these devices, and not a lot of training, troops can call in artillery or mortar fire, as well as GPS or laser guided bombs. More frequently, troops use them to keep track of the enemy and each other.

What was unusual about the June 9th incident was how rare such events have become. Since GPS guided bombs were introduced during the 1990s the technology and procedures for their use have been tweaked, automated and improved to avoid friendly fire incidents like this. The elimination of most friendly fire incidents was one of many changes that have made 21st century combat much less deadly for American troops. For example the casualty rate for American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been about a third of what it was for their counterparts in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Friendly fire deaths have fallen even more and are now about 20 percent of what they were in mid-20th century wars. But the June 9th incident reminds everyone that an inept and accident prone JTAC can still get around all the safeguards and get the wrong people killed.

 

 


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