Skip to comments.Patriot May Mistake Aircraft For Missile In Combat's Electronic Glut
Posted on 04/24/2003 6:27:22 AM PDT by Stand Watch Listen
CAMP DOHA, KUWAIT -- The coalition's top commander for air defense says the glut of electronic signatures on the modern battlefield may make it more difficult for the Patriot interceptor system to distinguish aircraft from missiles.
A U.S. Patriot battery downed a British Tornado fighter March 23 near the Kuwaiti border, killing the two-man aircrew. Two days later, an American F-16 aircraft fired a HARM anti-radar missile on a Patriot radar south of An Najaf after the radar tracked the fighter. And a Patriot system is believed responsible for shooting down an F/A-18 on April 2 near Karbala, according to the Pentagon.
Some battlefield electronics may confuse the Patriot radar, said Army Brig. Gen. Howard Bromberg, commanding general of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command. He was interviewed in late March, just four days before the F/A-18 incident.
We're not 100 percent sure what the effect of those electronic signatures [is] on the battlefield, said Bromberg, who also serves as commander of coalition air defenses and deputy area air defense commander for ground-based defenses.
He said his initial thought is that the digital environment may have contributed to friendly fire incidents involving the Patriot.
In many cases, coalition aircraft were operating close together in a relatively small space, he noted. I think we have to go back and look at every little detail: What does this radar signature do to this airplane? What is this airplane's signature on this radar?
And, Bromberg asked, as the Patriot and other electronic systems were modernized, is there something that we missed?
We're mastering technology but, as we're mastering it, we may not understand all the impacts of that technology, he said.
Bromberg noted that he wanted to avoid discussing the specifics of the cases because they remain under investigation.
But he said that in the case of the Tornado, the airplane didn't look like an airplane to the operator. And that's what the initial report is.
The point is particularly salient because no Iraqi aircraft were flying during the war, which means a Patriot battery operator would have had little reason to assume aircraft he saw were hostile.
We have not ruled out human error, Bromberg said. We have an investigation team going on both of these to find exactly what happened, he said prior to the third incident.
It could have been a simple system malfunction of the Patriot missile system that caused it to misidentify the Tornado as a threat, whether as a ballistic missile or anti-radiation homing missile threatening the Patriot itself, echoed Air Force Maj. Gen. Dan Leaf, the senior air component representative to the ground headquarters here.
Leaf similarly noted he could discuss only potential reasons for such friendly fire accidents, and cautioned his comments were in no way intended to prejudge the outcome of specific investigations.
One possibility in any such investigation is that a combination of human error and technical malfunction is to blame, officials say.
I think it's key to remember that the Patriot operator and the system have to make very, very rapid decisions as to whether to engage or not, said Leaf, interviewed April 8. Detecting an incoming surface-to-surface missile, launching a Patriot and intercepting the missile all occurs within a matter of seconds, he said.
On the technical side of it, Leaf said, the Patriot missile system has to draw some conclusions. There's still a man in the loop. But there has to be some sort of a cueing profile that indicates that this is a possible threat. And it's not a circumstance where you have several minutes to check your reference material and ask yourself, 'Is this a threat or not?' It is a very time-critical decision. And that makes it more difficult to always make the right choice.
Leaf also raised the possibility that an identification friend-or-foe malfunction may be involved in an incident like this. Questions to ask might include whether the aircraft's interrogation system was turned on and working properly at the time.
During the war, it would have been impossible for aircraft like the Tornado to simply avoid the Patriot's coverage area, which included friendly air bases, Leaf said. But, he said, we have [flying] routes that are intended to deconflict them.
Yet technology like aircraft interrogation systems only go so far in preventing friendly fire incidents, the Iraq war's ground force commander noted at an April 23 press conference.
What really makes all the difference in mitigating the risk of fratricide has nothing to do with technology, said Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, speaking to Pentagon reporters from Baghdad via teleconference. It has everything to do with the tactical discipline of units [in] using the right fire support coordination measures, the right tactical graphics, and the right weapons control status and discipline of formations.
He said identification friend-or-foe or visual reflective markers can play a helpful role.
All the services have made great strides since [Operation] Desert Storm, said McKiernan. Is there more that we can do? I believe there probably is and I'm sure we'll address that as we look at resourcing future requirements.
Bromberg said that one good thing about the electronic environment we are in now is that, in many cases, we're able to go back and get data from the radars and data from the aircraft to try to piece together what happened.
Just like black boxes in civilian aircraft, we have recording devices, he continued. So we can go back in and try to glean data from the recording devices. And that helps point us in the right area.
Bromberg said the coalition did make a few minor modifications to operating procedures to deconflict Patriots and coalition aircraft after the first incidents.
We have changed some things to put some extra steps in to make absolutely sure this can't happen again, he said. But at the same time, [we] allow both airplanes and ground-based systems to continue firing missiles.
Leaf said the coalition did make the Patriot's rules of engagement more restrictive in certain modes after the Tornado incident. But he noted the rules had to remain permissive enough to allow the Patriot to continue firing against actual Iraqi threat missiles.
That's a very challenging balance to make sure that in tightening up or making more restrictive rules of engagement, you don't give the enemy a 'seam' to employ his weapons in between, Leaf commented. You wouldn't want to get so protective, so restrictive in employment, that you can't do your primary job.
Despite the new restrictions, a hauntingly similar friendly fire tragedy played out just 10 days after the Tornado incident, when another Patriot battery apparently downed the F/A-18 near Karbala.
Leaf said the F/A-18 incident would raise many of the same questions for military officials as the earlier one, with an additional complication: This occurred much closer to the fighting, when there were apparently some rocket attacks from Iraqi forces against friendly forces, and artillery in the air, and surface-to-air missiles fired by the Iraqis, he said.
All this activity occurred in about the same time [frame] and relatively close [proximity] -- just making the battlespace that more complex, Leaf said. The Patriot battery in this case was a V Corps asset, providing terminal defense for fielded forces.
Explanations for the error might include the possibility that the Patriot may have seen an incoming Iraqi weapon and launched on that, and had the missile 'transfer' potentially to the F-18, Leaf said. Or, in this very dense kind of cluttered combat environment, it might have been easier to misidentify the F-18 as a threat, either [as an] aircraft or weapon.
When you're fighting, for instance, in a dust storm at night in an urban area with special operating forces, conventional forces [and] air power all operating in the same battlespace, you are never, ever going to completely mitigate the risk of blue-on-blue fire, McKiernan said this week. That's a danger we have in this profession that no amount of technology will ever completely erase.
In regard to the March 25 incident involving the F-16, Bromberg ruled out the idea that the U.S. pilot fired on the Patriot battery to save his own life, fearing a repeat of the Tornado tragedy.
I'm 100 percent positive he did not believe it was a Patriot radar, Bromberg said of the F-16 pilot. I believe he had indications it was a threat radar. I'm confident that that pilot would have never fired -- just as the lieutenants in the Patriot [battery] would have never fired -- had they believed there was any chance they were firing on a friendly. I'm convinced of that.
Bromberg said he bases that conviction on knowing people who have been doing this for a long time. And talking to crews, talking to pilots, nobody would ever do that knowingly, in my mind.
He said if the F-16 pilot believed it was a Patriot mistakenly tracking him, rather than an Iraqi radar, he would have taken evasive action or other self-defense measures.
While these events are tragic and we will fully investigate, Bromberg said, we should not forget Patriot's successes to date in the war. Those include nine intercepts of Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles.
-- Elaine M. Grossman