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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 February 2007, 13:58 GMT
Friendly fire and the fog of war
Stephen Chittenden
BBC News

The cockpit videotape reveals the tragic mistakes that led to the death of Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull in Iraq. But it also raises a serious question. Why did a military power with such advanced technology unleash lethal force on its own side?

A10 Thunderbolt
Matty Hull's vehicle was attacked by an A10 Thunderbolt
There is nothing new in so-called friendly fire. So long as there has been conflict, there have been what servicemen and women call "blue-on-blue" or "fratricide".

Charles Heyman, editor of Armed Forces of the UK, describes it as an unfortunate inevitability of conflict.

"It comes with the package when you go to war. This case was absolutely tragic, maybe more so today because the numbers killed are so much smaller than they were. In the weeks after the Normandy landings in World War II, thousands of allied troops were killed by their own side."

Both Gulf wars saw instances where British servicemen came under attack from US and fellow British forces.

Of the 33 British soldiers who died between the invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003, and the end of major combat operations, seven were killed by friendly fire.

On 23 March 2003, an RAF Tornado was downed by a US Patriot missile near the Iraq-Kuwait border.

They're still relying on a piece of cardboard and a pot of paint
Mel Gillespie, father of 1991 friendly fire victim

Both crew members, Flight Lieutenants Kevin Main and David Williams were killed.

A day later tank commander Sgt Steven Roberts, 33, was shot dead by a colleague while trying to quell a riot in Al Zubayr, near the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

And on 25 March Cpl Stephen Allbutt, 35, and Trooper David Clarke, 19 were killed when their Challenger 2 tank came under fire from another British Challenger.

A Ministry of Defence report then blamed a communications breakdown. A spokesman said: "It was in the war-fighting phase, with all the pressure and difficulties associated with an operational environment."

Marine Christopher Maddison, 24, was killed by his own side during a river patrol on 30 March.

Matty Hull was killed on 28 March. He was not the first British soldier to find himself under fire from US A10 warplanes, the "tankbusters". In the 1991 Gulf War, British troops in Warrior armoured vehicles were attacked by A10s, with nine killed.

Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull
L/CoH Matty Hull came under fire in a convoy near Basra

In the wake of that conflict huge efforts were put into finding technical means by which solders can identify themselves to friendly forces. Radio signals can alert a tank or aircraft to the fact that it has a friendly unit in its sights.

But Mel Gillespie, whose son Richard, 19, was a member of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and among the nine soldiers killed in 1991, says the MoD failed to deliver a system that would prevent a repeat.

"They said they'd do anything to stop it happening again, and it would take four to five years to get it done. Here we are 16 years on and it's still not in use.

"They're still relying on a piece of cardboard and a pot of paint."

Defence analyst Paul Beaver agrees the systems should have been fitted to the aircraft and British vehicles involved.

"There are technological systems that can be fitted to A10 that would go a long way to stop this happening. This was the recommendation in 1991. It should stick combat identification on all its vehicles."

Friend or Foe

The system is known as IFF, or Identification Friend or Foe. But while it may protect troops from their own side, it can also make them more vulnerable to the enemy. Charles Heyman says the technology is far from simple.

"The moment you put IFF equipment on a vehicle it has to start transmitting and the enemy can pick up your signal. Straightaway you've compromised your position as well as the number of vehicles."

The MoD said IFF is primarily used in aircraft. In 1991 they had looked at introducing it to ground vehicles, but abandoned the plan because it would have generated too much information to be useful.

A spokesman said : "The amount of data would be massive, and it would be impossible for commanders to get a real-time picture. So it would be more dangerous than not having it."

He said a recent National Audit Office report noted the MoD had made good progress in key areas of combat identification.

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