Friend or Foe? Avoiding the tragedy of fratricide in land operations

During 2011 four Australian soldiers (“blue” forces) were killed and 10 were wounded in three separate attacks by Afghan troops and police - called “green” forces in NATO terminology.

4th Oct 2012

 LAND 146

 Friend or Foe? Avoiding the tragedy of fratricide in land operations

Byline: Geoff Slocombe / Victoria

During 2011 four Australian soldiers (“blue” forces) were killed and 10 were wounded in three separate attacks by Afghan troops and police - called “green” forces in NATO terminology.

Then the August 2012 “green on blue” attack by a rogue Afghan National Army sergeant Hekmatullah, which caused the deaths of three more Australian soldiers, brought into sharp reliefonce again the tragedy of soldiers being killed by so-called “friendly forces”. In this instance that was not the case, as it was premeditated murder by someone who was being treated as an ally.

While that was scant consolation to the family, friends and colleagues of the dead soldiers, an even worse scenario arises when a “blue on blue” attack by friendly forces on other friendly forces results in fatalities (fratricide) and/or serious injuries. Tragically this has happened since wars began, but can modern technology help to reduce the incidence of fratricide?

The Australian Defence Department used to take this problem very seriously and has been active over the past decade seeking to improve general combat identification (GCID) of friendly troops.

Some years ago Project LAND 146 Phase 1- Combat Identification for Land Forces - studied different combat identification (CID) approaches and the technologies which enable them, subsequently acquiring interim capability for a deployable battle group in the ADF’s 1 Brigade.

In late 2005 a market technology survey for LAND 146 Phase 2, by a contractor on behalf of the DSTO and the Defence’s Capability Development Group, stated that “Australia seeks to acquire a CID capability suitable for use in air-to-surface, to identify armoured and soft-skinned vehicles and dismounted troops to fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and surface-to-surface to identify all combinations of dismounted troops and vehicles, including coastal and amphibious small watercraft, to each other.” The stated aim was to acquire mature technology, leaving then developing technologies to Phase 3.

The public 2011 Defence Capability Plan showed the Phase 2 year of decision to be FY 2012-13 to FY 2013-14, with initial material release and initial operating capability to be FY 2014-15 to FY 2015-16. However, this was a cut-down version of the project, as the Digital Terminal Control System (DTCS) aspects had been moved to LAND 17 Phase 1B.1, with Ministerial Approval announced in June 2012 for 96 DTCS units to be purchased from Rockwell Collins Australia.

The May 2012 Defence Budget Statements made no mention of LAND 146 Phase 2, nor does the public version 2012 Defence Capability Plan. Had CID been dropped? Surely not. APDR assumed the project had become classified or quietly gained Second Pass Approval and therefore was no longer in the public version of documents. When APDR checked whether or not LAND 146 Phase 2 was still a live project, a Defence spokesperson replied “This project was cancelled as part of the Defence review into the 2012 Defence Capability Plan”.

WHAT? Given that the project’s 2011 DCP preamble included this statement “Since first pass approval of Phase 2, the development of the various CID technologies has accelerated at different rates and in such a manner as to render some of the legacy GCID capabilities delivered in Phase 1 obsolete. To overcome this issue, the project direction for Phase 2 has moved towards a GCID capability, for mounted and dismounted operations using passive and active technologies that operate in the near as well as mid-and far-portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum.”

Some of the ADF’s GCID capabilities obsolete and Defence has cancelled the project to examine what should be done to overcome this! How is this helping protect the lives of service personnel sent by the Government into dangerous theatres of operation? Yet the Government can cheerfully commit $214 million to study concepts for a future submarine (see “Editorial” APDR September 2012). Is Defence’s Capability Development Group indulging in a macabre guessing game that by the time this project would have produced tangible deliverables, the ADF will have withdrawn from Afghanistan and not be involved in shooting operations anywhere?

Let’s hope that the DSTO is continuing to quietly work on suitable technologies for future combat identification.

Given that a 2004 agreement was signed between Australia and the United States for a Joint Statement Of Principles On Interoperability, which included in Annex A Proposed Interoperability Activities a clause stating “Australia will procure combat identification equipment that is compatible with U.S. forces and upgrade its participation to Level 3 (Technical Participation) in the U.S. Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator covering combat identification” what is the current situation?

Exercise Bold Quest 12-1 was conducted in June 2012 when more than 400 US and coalition military personnel representing US Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force , 11 partner nations including Australia, and U.S. Special Operations Command, came together for a two-week exercise in Indiana, USA, focused on combat identification for ground target engagement by coalition aircraft — especially those tools developed for aircrew and ground controllers to enable them to coordinate attacks or drop bombs on targets more quickly and effectively than they can today.

Joint terminal attack controllers or JTACs, the forces on the ground who direct close air support, used Bold Quest to certify the equipment they now use to communicate with aircrews before deploying to Afghanistan.


LOAC was developed by nations that respect rule-based order, i.e. the civilised nations, to ensure that while prosecuting a war or other military operations, unnecessary suffering by non-combatants is avoided or minimised. Those so protected include civilians, POWs, wounded, the sick, and ship-wrecked sailors.

The three main principles for operations in accordance with LOAC are military necessity, distinction and proportionality. Military necessity implies combat forces’ rules of engagement (ROE) direct that they are only to apply lethal or other force to accomplish legitimate military objectives. Distinction means discriminating between lawful combat targets, as permitted by their ROE, and non-combatant targets. Proportionality prohibits the use of force beyond that necessary to achieve the military objective.

Personnel who do not follow their own force’s ROE are usually subject to military jurisdiction in their own country. Visiting Forces Acts typically shield military personnel from judicial enforcement by the country in which they are operating.

Rules of engagement are specific to the theatre of operations and can become quite involved. For example, the SECRET Rules of Engagement for US Military involved with 2007 Operation Fardh al Qanoon in Iraq went down to the level of which ‘Mosques may not be entered or attacked without prior approval from higher headquarters’.

ROEs impart confidence to commanders and troops that they have a clear set of military constraints, responsibilities and considerations. They tend to be negative in saying what troops cannot do, rather than what they should do in any military campaign.

ROE can help protect troops from friendly fire, since all offensive action requires clear distinction of targets. However, a high proportion of fratricide attacks come as a result of a lack of situational awareness either by the shooters or those fired upon.


Another article in this issue, (see page 14 of this edition), describes why “securing the Joint Fires Environment is made necessary when a number of small combined arms teams are operating in close proximity and have advanced to contact with adversary forces, and each must be able to orchestrate precision joint fires within a short, but critical, time. This means that all the coercive kinetic effects weapons immediately available from land, sea or air must be able to be rapidly called-in or de-committed in a scalable manner through a single networked information environment. This is a very demanding task with many complications”.

CID technologies for accurate identification of friendly forces are continually evolving but the requirement to have a secure technology, which cannot be implemented by an adversary, is paramount. However, “people factors” are also very important. Perception, understanding of what has been seen, situational awareness, team processes and training are essential in avoiding fratricide.


These can be divided between passive signalling devices, active signalling devices, interrogation/response systems, and situational awareness systems.

Passive signalling devices enable CID of friendly units without any action or response by the person or platform carrying the device. The technologies involved are infrared paint and tape, identification panels, and smoke markers. Apart from smoke markers, visibility can be accomplished through image intensification (typically ground-to-ground) and/or thermal imaging (typically air-to-ground) equipment. The paint, tape and panels can be coded, in the same way that messages can be secured by encoding, so that they cannot be imitated by adversarial forces.

Active signalling devices emit electromagnetic energy to facilitate situational awareness. The technologies involved include infrared beacons (such as infrared strobes or infrared-encoded spectrum flashers), chemical lights (in infrared and the visible range), and reflective signalling devices that use the Sun.

Interrogation/response systems include radio frequency identification tags (RF tags), radar beacons (RACONs), battlefield target identification devices (BTIDs), individual combat identification devices (ICIDs), optical combat identification devices (O-CIDS) which are pulse coded eye-safe laser systems, identify friend or foe (IFF) / secondary surveillance radar (SSR) systems, radio based combat identification (RBCI), and automatic dependant surveillance-broadcast (ADSB).

A significant development in O-CIDS occurred last year when Cubic Corporation demonstrated at Bold Quest 2011 their Dismounted Combat ID with Target Location & Navigation (DCID-TALON) which works when its user spots a target in his or her scope. The shooter aims the device, which sends an encoded message by laser beam. If the target is friendly, the message will reflect off the target’s retro-reflectors (they are the size of a postage stamp and can be embedded in the soldier’s helmet and uniform; each soldier would be outfitted with multiple retro-reflectors), and the device will display the word “FRIEND.” The multifunction technology was tested in sun, rain, smoke, haze, through trees and windows and at a distance. It was tested on moving soldiers who were walking, riding in vehicles, and engaging in simulated dry-fire and live-fire combat scenarios. A 99% identification accuracy was claimed. These retro-reflectors can also be fitted to vehicles and weapons.

Situational awareness systems include blue force tracking (BFT), the US joint blue force situational awareness (JBFSA) program, and battlefield command support systems.


What will the Government do now to ensure that troops they send into harm’s way are protected against fratricide to every practical way possible? This is one of the gravest responsibilities carried by the Government on behalf of the population who elect them. Any dereliction from a duty of care should have very serious consequences for those politicians who do not accord this a high priority.

Appointment of JTACs and implementation of DTCS systems within the Joint Fires Environment will help. But what is to be provided to individual personnel and their vehicles? DSTO projects and joint development work on GCID with coalition partners should be quarantined from spending cuts applying to lower priority and more nebulous projects.

This is not just a today issue, but one of high profile and continuing importance for the morale of those people who lay their life on the line for their country, their families and colleagues.


APDR at a glance