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

By Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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