US-UK Friendly Fire Incident

Fratricide – an Emotive Issue

The death of servicemen or women during combat operations is a sad reality but when those casualties are due to friendly – not enemy – actions, public reaction understandably includes a desire for recrimination and this need to place blame is amplified when an ally is responsible for the casualties. Given the unpopularity of the Bush Administration in segments of the British population/media and the subjective view (based essentially on press reports and fictional entertainment) many British people have of American forces, this reproach is particularly acute when that ally is the US.
And so it is unsurprising that the leak of the cockpit video from the A-10 aircraft that strafed the reconnaissance patrol in which Lance Corporal of Horse (LCoH) Matty Hull died generated such widespread interest and emotion. However, in contrast to Mrs Hull’s measured and dignified response to the video, much of the media and public commentary on the incident was so emotive and subjective that it drifted toward frenzy. Objectivity appeared to have fallen to an appetite for sensationalism and there was a trend in media commentary that elevated the episode into a cause for a crisis in US-UK military relations. Yet the thrust of a number of pundit remarks, including the charge that this episode demonstrated that the US military is ‘gung-ho’, that British forces are merely a subservient arm of the US military and that the incident comprises culpable errors are broadly subjective. It is widely understood that US forces operate differently from the British and that force protection issues, an historical emphasis on firepower and a fundamentally different view on the place of firearms in society have an influence on the approach taken by the US military and the attitudes of its personnel. But the implicit criticism in the suggestion that US forces are ‘gung-ho’ is more serious if it is that they are reckless and profligate in their use of violence and therefore constitute an unprofessional and dangerous ally.

In armed forces the immense size of the US military such criticism could potentially be laid at the feet of some individuals, but as a general assessment it is a discredit to the majority of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who conduct their duties with restraint and in a thoroughly professional manner - servicemen and women whose efforts to protect the Iraqi people and their cast-iron support to coalition allies is largely unacknowledged. Naturally there are incidents of US forces using excessive violence or imprudent haste in attack, but just as the Light Infantry assault of civilians in Basra and the two cases of ‘Brits-on-Brits’ fratricide in Iraq are not indicative of a ‘gung-ho’ posture in our own Forces, it is inappropriate to use such reasoning to accuse the US military in that way. Similarly, the idea that the British are subservient to the US (because the MoD did not release the American cockpit video) is to suggest that should the UK agree to any request from an ally with ownership of an issue (the tape belongs to a foreign government) it has yielded its sovereignty. Had the tape been from a British aircraft and the US insisted that the MoD withheld it the assertion of undue influence might have some foundation. But it was not and surely does not. As for the supposed ‘errors’ there is, for example, condemnation of the A-10 pilot for attacking a target without specific positive clearance from a Forward Air Controller (FAC). The imperative for this requirement is rooted in the Cold War when FACs had sight of both the targeted enemy and the friendly attacking aircraft, and were responsible for positively clearing/terminating every attack. But changes in the nature of the battlefield and aircraft weapon systems mean the employment of combat aircraft in support of ground forces has had to evolve. Instead of the traditional battlefield with its linear disposition of opposing forces, today’s battlespace is more dynamic comprising a lower density of units of greater manoeuvrability, while the ability of coalition air forces to achieve air supremacy enables Air Power to have an effect on enemy land operations far beyond the forward edge of the battle area. Furthermore, technological advances have produced airborne weapons that can be delivered with precise accuracy at night, through cloud or at many miles distance from the target.

So to ensure friendly air and land forces optimise their enhanced capabilities procedures have evolved to ensure Air Power is used with greater operational flexibility. This evolution includes the use of geographical ‘kill boxes’ in which aircraft are at liberty to engage enemy targets and an increase in the types of close air support that might be conducted. Both modify the traditional role of the FAC and it is within that context that there may have been confusion as to whether the attack on LCoH Hull’s patrol was a procedural mistake. However, as this incident demonstrates, in the logical attempt to increase operational flexibility and achieve maximum effect on the enemy, the risk of fratricide also rises – a risk that commanders take into account in the face of combat.

To the layman, the A-10 video is emotive viewing. Others, with an understanding of the environment in which the pilots were working, have an insight to the context in which the tragedy sits. The realities of cockpit workload when flying in hostile airspace, the uncertainty and confusion of operations over the forward edge of the battle area and the difficulty of trying to make sense of objects viewed from 10-12 000 feet are perhaps factors that are not generally apparent yet they help place the incident into a proper perspective. Yes, the pilots had questions about whether they were looking at friendly vehicles sporting coloured identity panels, but that concern was undermined by three things:

  1. A clear statement from the controlling authority (that there were no friendly forces in the A-10’s vicinity),
  2. A perception of events that met an expectation (there was an obvious anticipation that Iraqi rocket launchers would be in the area)
  3. A lack of sufficient identification training that might have made the British vehicles familiar.

Sadly, that perception was neither adequately challenged nor corrected until it was too late. In hindsight, the pilots would doubtless wish they had made further enquiries of better informed controllers or risked themselves by flying lower in an attempt to identify the vehicles. From available information it is difficult to conclude that they were culpable in not doing so at the time. In common with most air accidents this tragedy is the culmination of a series of links that form a chain and had one link been absent the chain might have been broken. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Finally, to suggest that this tragic incident from 2003 would adversely affect the relationship and trust between US and UK forces today ignores the many crucial interventions made by American A-10 aircraft on behalf of British (and coalition) troops in Afghanistan. Here, where British soldiers were frequently in isolated outposts or under attack from superior numbers of Taliban fighters, the firepower provided by these aircraft was often decisive in not only defeating the enemy but also in minimizing British casualties. As in many previous campaigns, the few incidents of tragic error must be viewed alongside a vast amount of co-operation, co-ordination and inter-operability that has brought mission success and helped strengthen the so called ‘special relationship’ within the military arena. Of course the US and UK militaries criticize each other, have rivalry and find unilateral operations easier to conduct, but in alliance the US and UK have never been defeated.

It is therefore perhaps unfortunate that recent media speculation on the tragic death of LCoH Hull painted a partial picture that feeds an inaccurate perception in the minds of many people in the UK at a time when the international interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan require alliance solidarity not discord.

By Paul Smythe

Head, Aerospace and Information Studies, Military Sciences Department, RUSI

The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute

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