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Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Friendly fire - plus ca change

The Daily Telegraph reports today that the Ministry of Defence is failing to do anything to reduce the likelihood of friendly fire accidents. Not only are they currently failing to do anything about future accidents, sitting about waiting for a technological fix, they have done nothing about the culpability revealed by the Gulf war tragedy. Firstly here is today’s report from The (subscription) Daily Telegraph:

Ministry 'failing to cut friendly fire risks'
By Linus Gregoriadis
(Filed: 21/08/2002)

The Ministry of Defence is failing to protect military personnel from friendly fire accidents, MPs said yesterday.

The Commons public accounts committee said it had not implemented a full "combat identification" capability more than 10 years after nine British soldiers died in a Gulf war air strike by the Americans.

The committee criticised the ministry for only recently producing a policy paper and said that there was a "dearth" of relevant data.

The MPs said the delays were impeding the effectiveness of weapons systems. The £2 billion Rapier air defence missile system operated at 25 per cent of capability to minimise the risk of friendly fire casualties.

After the Gulf War, the inquest on nine British soldiers killed in the notorious friendly fire incident returned a verdict of ‘Unlawful Killing’. Under normal circumstances, such a verdict would result in a criminal prosecution. The report on such a prosecution seems to have escaped me.

Geoffrey Robertson, appearing on behalf of the bereaved families, showed that the procedures used for confirming target references, even given the technology available at the time were a total mess. In a ‘normal’, e.g. commercial, environment, the officers responsible for such a mess would be out on their ears.

Here is part of the mess: the (British) flight controller gave some target co-ordinates, verbally, to the US aircraft destined to perpetrate the blue-on-blue incident. The pilot acknowledged the message by blipping his send/receive button. The flight controller was 100% certain that he had received this acknowledgement.

So bloody what? How was he to know that the pilot was using the correct co-ordinates?

People make mistakes, particularly in conveying, transcribing, and entering numbers. The experience of the Air New Zealand aircraft (crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica, 1979) and the Korean airliner (shot down by a Soviet pilot over Kamchatka/Sakhalin, 1983) provides ample evidence that wrong co-ordinates lead to tragedy. These events should have provided lessons but they were, apparently, ignored by the brass.

At the inquest, the MoD claimed that it was important to maintain secrecy about procedures. This was to prevent interference by the enemy in the target identification process. So it was all right to use sloppy procedures which, besides making target finding open to human error, was quite likely to lead to tragedy.

Any half-competent systems designer in the latter half of the 20th century could have come up with a verification system to reduce the likelihood of such an error. To have failed to apply such safeguards in the early nineties is nothing short of criminal and the inquest jury was right to have reached the verdict it did. But where are the criminals, now? Still in high positions or retired with distinction, I’ll be bound.

The coroner was generally scathing about the Ministry of Defence’s conduct in the matter. In the light of his criticism, it is a further scandal that there has been no noticeable progress in ten years. Must there be further casualties before these idiots get their house in order?