Afghanistan and Iraq: Friendly Fire

House of Lords written question – answered on 25th January 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour

To ask Her Majesty's Government what lessons have been learnt from casualties caused by "friendly fire" in (a) Afghanistan, and (b) Iraq, in order to reduce such instances in the future.

To ask Her Majesty's Government what common causes have been identified in "friendly fire" incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Science and Innovation) (also in the Ministry of Defence)

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) deeply regrets each death or injury caused by "friendly fire" or fratricide. After every such incident we carry out a thorough investigation as we would for any other death in service, initially led by the local commander and subsequently by the military chain of command. We also take careful note of the recommendations of service inquiries and coroners' inquests, and track their implementation through a single service or joint lessons register.

Additionally, the MoD maintains a Combat Identification Steering Group which meets every six months to ensure that all three services have coherent procedures and equipment to reduce fratricide.

The common causes identified in friendly fire incidents are:

Mistakenly identifying friendly forces for enemy-in the confusion of battle, the ground commander can sometimes mistake friendly forces for enemy forces and call for fire support (fast jets, helicopters, heavy weapons and artillery) against them.

Procedures not followed correctly-our Armed Forces have very effective procedures for minimising fratricide when calling for fire support. When these are not followed fully then errors can be made e.g. when the map reference of the location to be fired on is not confirmed with the ground forces before firing. Research is currently under way into the human factors which cause such errors.

Loss of situational awareness-in the confusion of a battle, fire support elements can lose track of where enemy and friendly forces are positioned (in military parlance, their situational awareness). To counteract this, fire support will be "talked on" to their target by friendly forces involved in the battle with a verbal description of the target. Some incidents of fratricide result from a misunderstanding of the verbal description provided.

The key lessons learnt are in three major categories:

Collective training and multinational interoperability -many fratricides occur when unfamiliar units are suddenly forced to work together. This usually arises from necessity, as when troops come under fire and call for close air support. In this situation the nearest available air asset will be directed to assist and thus the pilot may not immediately recognise the friendly force.

To minimise the risk of fratricide from such incidents our Armed Forces place considerable emphasis on joint training at every level before deployment, and on familiarisation with the equipment and procedures of coalition allies both prior to deployment and in theatre.

For the occasions when unfamiliar forces must work together, the UK is actively engaged with our NATO partners on developing equipment and procedures for combat identification. To test candidate technical solutions, the UK participated in a multinational combat identification exercise in October and November last year involving ground troops and fast air support from 12 nations.

Time lag of data in tactical communications and information systems-due to technological limitations, real time flow of information can never be achieved: there is always some delay (known as latency) in the transmission or refreshing of the information available to our forces, which could contribute to "friendly fire" incidents.

Shared situational awareness-the three services (and our coalition partners) have different requirements for information about the tactical situation which lead to different amounts of delay between an entity being reported at a particular location and the report of that position being received. UK ground and air forces therefore use different systems to display information about the current tactical situation. Some fratricide incidents have occurred which may have been caused by differences in the information available to the various parties. The MoD is putting significant effort into supplying near-real time force tracking information to tactical operations rooms and has made considerable progress in the last three months. The upgrade of Bowman in Afghanistan next year will also help to ensure that ground forces have a common and up-to-date understanding of the tactical situation.

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