San Diego Union-Tribune

December 6, 2001

'Friendly fire' still a killer despite weapons advances


WASHINGTON -- The grossly misnamed phenomenon of "friendly fire," which took a heavy toll in the Persian Gulf War, has struck again, inflicting more U.S. casualties in Afghanistan than enemy fire.

An unfortunate feature of war throughout history, fratricide or friendly fire has not been eliminated by the advent of high-tech weapons and may be more troubling as sophisticated standoff munitions, which are fired from a great distance, reduce total U.S. casualties, experts say.

A precision-guided bomb dropped by an Air Force B-52 hit too close to friendly forces near Kandahar, killing three American special operations troops and five anti-Taliban fighters yesterday. Nineteen Americans and at least 20 friendly Afghans were wounded by the powerful 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition.

Last week, five U.S. special forces soldiers and a number of Northern Alliance fighters were wounded when a U.S. fighter dropped a similar weapon in the wrong location during the escape attempt by Taliban prisoners near Mazar-e Sharif.

So far, enemy fire apparently has killed one American, a CIA operator, and has wounded one soldier.

Yesterday's tragedy is a familiar story to military veterans.

"Any time you get to a situation where the forces are close together, or are in isolated situations where it's hard to differentiate between friend and foe, there's going to be trouble," said retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich.

"This is not a new environment there in Afghanistan. It's just the factor of close air support, a fluid, difficult situation," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker, a veteran Navy attack pilot.

U.S. Central Command and Pentagon spokesmen said the cause of the accident was unknown.

"This is not something we accept," Marine Maj. Brad Lowell said at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. "But it does happen."

This incident and the tragic record of the Gulf War demonstrate that the advent of high-tech weapons has not eliminated such accidents. Ironically, as sophisticated standoff munitions reduce total U.S. casualties, the friendly fire losses become more troubling, experts note.

That was the case in the 1991 Gulf War, the first of the relatively bloodless "Nintendo wars," in which high-tech weapons allowed the American-led coalition to inflict vastly disproportionate casualties on the Iraqi army.

But in 27 recorded instances of fratricide, those same U.S. weapons killed or wounded 107 American troops and 22 British soldiers -- 17 percent of their total casualties during the war.

Some of the first friendly fire casualties of the Gulf War involved Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division troops, who were hit by Air Force jets while fighting off an Iraqi attack near the Saudi city of Khafji.

But those fratricide losses pale in comparison to past wars.

In Vietnam, the heavy use of artillery and close air support helped countless Army and Marine ground units survive desperate fights with superior enemy forces. But that same firepower, used during close combat, inflicted hundreds of unintended casualties on U.S. troops.

During World War II, fratricide incidents caused thousands of casualties, which were little noticed in the bloody conflict.