Fratricide in Afghanistan


F15 Bagram USAF photo


Sadly, the Ministry of Defence has announced the deaths of three more servicemen on active duty in Afghanistan.  Although any casualties on military operations are regrettable these are particularly tragic because the soldiers were killed by a weapon dropped from a friendly aircraft.  Such incidents understandably evoke critical reactions from those unfamiliar with the conduct of modern warfare but it is important not to make immediate judgments based on an incomplete or corrupted understanding of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy, or to draw unmerited conclusions of the way in which the conflict in Afghanistan is being fought. 


It seems that the deaths on Thursday occurred during a patrol where what is termed ‘Close Air Support’ was required.  ‘CAS’, as it is known, is a tactical application of air power where armed aircraft are employed in direct support of friendly troops in contact with enemy forces.  It has its roots in the First World War and has been used extensively in warfare ever since.  Although modern technology has changed the way in which CAS is conducted (for example allowing CAS to be successfully conducted at night) there are enduring characteristics associated with its use.  These include the significant impact the firepower provided by CAS can have on the immediate ground battle and the high risks associated with delivering lethal weapons on enemy forces that are in very close proximity to friendly troops.  So the first point to recognize is that CAS is a dangerous but very necessary use of air power in support of land units.  Fortunately, enhancements in technology, army-air force inter-operability, joint training, air-ground communication and weapon accuracy have steadily reduced the incidence of so called ‘blue-on-blue’ tragedies, but the reality (especially in such a complex and ill-defined battlefield as Afghanistan) is that fratricide can be minimised but not eradicated, and that ‘blue-on-blue’ episodes, though increasingly remote, will continue to be integral to warfare for the foreseeable future.


The employment of air power in a ‘conventional’ high intensity war is complicated by many factors that are absent from the conflict in Afghanistan; as such it is possible to conduct CAS in a more measured manner.  Aircraft do not roam the area casually looking for something to bomb or strafe on a whim or on the basis that it looks ‘suspicious’, but are made available for use by ground commanders as they see fit.  This routinely involves a graduated use of the aircraft that might start with a mere over-flight of a Taliban position, or a subsequent requirement to use weapons be they bullets, rockets or finally a high-explosive bomb.  So the second point of note is that CAS is closely controlled by the land forces which are requesting air support and it is not an avenue for ‘gung-ho’ or inquisitive aircrew to practice their bombing and strafing skills.  Indeed, given the importance of gaining and maintaining popular support (both in Afghan and domestic populations) this constraint on the violent employment of air power is reinforced by the imperative to reduce casualties among the civilian population.


Although of little comfort to those affected by Thursday’s tragedy, the final point of note is that there are many British soldiers and marines alive today who owe a great debt to the Close Air Support they received in Afghanistan.  In particular, for those who fought the Taliban from isolated bases or on remote patrols the ubiquity and responsiveness of air power was especially important and the extremely accurate firepower provided by CAS aircraft was decisive in defeating an enemy which at times surrounded them.  Despite this week’s tragedy CAS remains an essential tactic in the conflict against the Taliban.  Unfortunately, as land forces operating in inaccessible and hostile environments place increasing dependence on CAS the frequency of CAS attacks has increased, while as aircraft weapon delivery accuracy has improved the ‘acceptable‘ distance between combatants has reduced.  Given this combination of factors it is likely that this will not be the last case of fratricide but the employment of CAS must continue undiminished.


Paul Smyth


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