CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, Qatar (AP) – Coalition forces suffered their first confirmed “friendly fire” deaths of the Iraq war yesterday, when a U.S. Patriot missile battery downed a British fighter jet near the Iraqi-Kuwait border, killing the two fliers on board.
Military analysts said the downing was rare, since the Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 would have been outfitted with a transponder – an electronic signal device identifying itself as a coalition military aircraft.
The shootdown was a blow for Britain, which already suffered 14 dead in accidents: the crash Friday of a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter that killed eight and a collision Saturday of two British Royal Navy helicopters that killed six.
Five American servicemen were killed in those incidents as well. The Tornado was returning from operations in Iraq when it was targeted by a U.S. Patriot missile battery, the British military said. The Royal Air Force base at Marham, in Britain, confirmed the two crewmembers were dead.
Over Iraq, the fighter had been taking part in strikes that destroyed Republican Guard forces outside Baghdad, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said in Qatar.
“I have to say it is not the beginning that we would have preferred,” Group Capt. Al Lockwood, spokesman for British forces in the Persian Gulf, said.
But, he said, “this is not training, this is war. And we expect tragically, occasionally that there are accidents.”
In military parlance the phenomenon also is known as “blue on blue,” or “fratricide” – the mistake that sends missiles, bullets, bombs or artillery shells hurtling in the wrong direction, inflicting casualties or damage on noncombatants or one’s own forces.
Every modern war has recorded its share of such incidents. In the 1991 Gulf War, the last time U. S. troops fought the Iraqis, 35 Americans were killed by friendly fire – nearly one quarter of the total of 148 combat deaths. In that war, too, several British troops were killed by errant U.S. fire.
As warfare has become more reliant on precision-guided weapons, the likelihood of such incidents diminishes. But even if the technology were foolproof – which it is not – the humans who use it remain vulnerable to mistakes.
“There are so many layers of information on all the layers of the battlefield,” said Michael Donovan, a research analyst with the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. “Complex systems unfortunately tend to break down, you can count on it.”
The most famous recent example of precision targeting gone wrong occurred during the Persian Gulf “tanker war” between Iraq and Iran on July 3, 1988, when the Navy cruiser USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian A300 Airbus over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 aboard.