No silver bullets yet exist to eliminate friendly fire. But experts believe
that a combination of new technology and modifications to training and procedures
could lead to significant improvements in combat ID.
Ground commanders, particularly, want their dismounted soldiers and Marines
to be able to identify friendly troops, by employing devices such as laser interrogators,
helmet panels and riflescopes.
Some of this technology already was used in real-world operations in Iraq and
Afghanistan, but, for the most part, the systems are experimental and need improvements
before they can become mainstream combat gear.
To give the services an opportunity to test shooter-to-shooter ID technology,
the Joint Forces Command hosted an exercise last month at Fort Benning, Ga.
Surprisingly, this was the first-ever operational test and “military
utility assessment” of soldier-to-soldier combat ID equipment, said Marine
Corps Maj. Phillip R. Woodley, deputy division commander of ground combat operations
for the Joint Combat Identification Evaluation Team.
JCIET, based at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is a division of Joint Forces Command
and was created in the early 1990s, solely to evaluate exercises and technology
for combat ID.
The exercise at Fort Benning, called Coalition Combat ID, is part of a five-year
program that started in 2001, when JFCOM took over the responsibility for combat
ID technology. Participants included U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Canadian and Spanish
forces. Most were a mix of infantry company commanders, platoon commanders and
The Defense Department started developing electronic identification friend-or-foe
systems in the 1960s. The Army has funded numerous programs for armored vehicle
identification. But despite advances in technology, there is no single solution
that addresses every combat ID problem. “Fratricide has existed in every
war,” Woodley said in an interview.
Developing effective combat ID systems is a “step by step process,”
Woodley said. “There is no one concept or one technology right now that
can solve and totally prevent friendly fire.”
New combat ID technology was employed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, he said.
But the ability to identify friend and foe is about much more than new hardware.
Troops in OIF, for example, had to learn how to better operate their existing
thermal imaging sensors. “That is a low-tech approach to combat ID that
worked extremely well,” said Woodley.
At the Fort Benning demonstration, conducted on an urban combat training range,
troops tested the so-called Soldier Integrated Multi-Purpose Laser, or SimLas.
Using a laser interrogator box mounted on their rifles, troops “lase”
other soldiers or Marines, each of whom has a sensor and an RF transmitter mounted
on his gear.
The laser device has an interrogator button that, when pressed, sends out a
laser beam and hits a friendly sensor. That sensor sends back a radio signal
to that interrogator. If the soldier gets a red light, it means “don’t
shoot,” because he just identified a friendly. If he lases a target and
does not get back a friendly response, he can shoot.
The system, in many ways, resembles the Miles laser-tag technology that soldiers
have trained with for many years.
“Miles is very similar,” said Woodley. “One of the systems
has a Miles laser beam embedded in it, so it can be used in training, to register
The sensors in SimLas, however, are more advanced than in Miles, he added.
“We are just testing the concept and the military utility in a MOUT [military
operations in urban terrain] environment.”
Another laser RF system evaluated at the MOUT range was the Land Warrior combat
ID device, which is one component of the Land Warrior high-tech ensemble now
in development by the U.S. Army. Other items evaluated were low-tech pieces
of equipment, but nevertheless valuable for combat ID, Woodley explained.
One is called the DCIMS helmet cover (dismounted combat ID marking system).
It essentially creates a “cold spot” on the helmet, so it can easily
be identified with infrared sensors. When a tracked or mechanized vehicle using
thermal sights IDs targets, the marker on the helmet reflects back a cold spot.
“They are trained that if they see that image, they are viewing friendly
forces,” Woodley said.
This technology is not new, he noted. It has been around since thermal imaging
was developed. But now they are putting it on helmet covers. In OIF, many tanks
and Bradley fighting vehicles had metal panel markers. When viewed with a thermal
sight, the panel reflects back a spot right in the middle of the heat signature.
High-power riflescopes also are viable tools for combat ID. The operators can
look downrange at longer distances and ID friendly forces. The scope tested
in this exercise was designed to fit on the rails of the M-16 or the M-4 rifles.
A similar version was sent to OIF. “They were very successful over there,”
said Woodley. “Now, we are looking if we need to add more power.”
Woodley declined to discuss specific results of the evaluation, which had yet
to be reviewed, but he said that, in general, the exercise helped determine
that certain technologies may not be needed and others are not yet ready for
“Participants are telling us what is working or not,” he said.
“Some may or may not get fielded.”
It’s not unusual for electronic ID technologies to work in the engineering
lab, but fail in the field, he added.
The MOUT facility is among the most challenging environments for combat ID,
Woodley noted. “The level of difficulty increases greatly when you can’t
look around in an open field and see who’s on the left and the right.”
In urban operations, “you can’t see what’s around the corner.”
For dismounted troops, one of the primary concerns is the ability to employ
ID systems under duress or combat stress. “That is one of the critical
operational issues that we are evaluating,” said Woodley. “We are
looking for their input as to whether, in the heat of the battle, a close-quarters
battle, it provides military utility.”
So far, the reviews are mixed, he said. “To be honest, we have different
As to whether a soldier would have enough time to interrogate another soldier
before he shoots, the issue comes down to human judgment. “Intuitively,
you understand that if someone standing a few feet away is shooting at you,
you are not going to take time to ID him,” Woodley said. “But if
you hear bullets passing by you, it could be your own forces on the left or
After the ID technologies are evaluated, the next step is for the services
to decide whether they need to change tactics, techniques and procedures, in
order to employ the ID systems successfully. “That is part of what we
are testing,” Woodley said. “Does your current TTP apply to using
this type of technology?”
The demonstration at Fort Benning will be followed, over the next two years,
by vehicle-to-vehicle and aircraft-to-ground ID exercises. These tests are part
of a five-year Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program that JFCOM
began in 2001 to demonstrate interoperable combat identification systems in
coalition air-to-ground and ground-to-ground environments.