US Military Targets Friendly-Fire Deaths from Drones
Last month's Pentagon report about the world's first known friendly-fire deaths from a drone airstrike served as a painful reminder of an ancient battlefield danger. To prevent a deadly repeat, the U.S. military wants to deploy technologies capable of quickly identifying friend from foe during the chaos of a firefight.
The U.S. Air Force has two ideas among its new requests for Small Business Innovation Research proposals. One suggestion calls for an "optical tagging device" worn by U.S. military members that would only become visible to near-infrared scopes or goggles. Another system for robotic drones would easily identify the location and direction of gunfire.
Any optical tags must work passively without power to react with infrared-light wavelengths. They must allow for different shapes or cross sections when applied to U.S. military vehicles and possibly persons. The Air Force requirements also ask for such tags to resist battlefield wear and tear, and to cost less than $100 per device at a production volume of 10,000 per year.
The second idea aims for a "hostile fire detection sensor" that allows drones to report on different sources of enemy gunfire during a raging battle. That means the sensor must tell the direction of fire, precisely locate the source, and even identify whether the weapon firing is a rifle, mortar or RPG. All of that must work aboard a drone cruising at altitudes of 25,000 feet, or close to 5 miles high.
Having an optical tagging system in place might have saved the lives of a Marine and Navy medic killed in Afghanistan on April 6 by a Predator drone strike. Instead, Air Force analysts, the Predator pilot and Marine commanders had to rely upon video from the circling drone and ground reports before making the decision to fire.
The Air Force analysts did realize that the gunshots from the location of the targeted Marines were headed away from friendly forces, according to a Stars and Stripes news report. They became uncertain about whether the drone had Marines rather than Taliban insurgents in its sights.
But a breakdown in communication meant such critical information never reached the Predator pilot or Marine commanders.
That suggests having the visual technology to identify friendly and enemy forces won't work alone, if the information does not get to the right people making battlefield decisions. To fix that issue, the U.S. military has also begun looking for ways to streamline the overflow of information coming from a growing swarm of drones and other battlefield intelligent sources.