Blue force blues

U.S., allies try to reduce fratricide with improved coalition combat identification

Although the Defense Department has made great strides in preventing friendly fire in its own ranks, keeping track of allied forces — and helping them keep track of U.S. units — is still a significant challenge. Defense and industry officials say forces in the field need their combat identification systems to be more interoperable with systems used by NATO and coalition forces.

“The No. 1 problem is interoperability,” said Andy Zembower, director of tactical systems at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems. Late last year, the company was awarded a five-year, $20 million contract by the Air Force Research Lab to conduct operational and technical analyses of combat ID systems.

“The whole environment is getting much more complex with the increasing numbers of sensors out there,” Zembower said. “It’s like everyone is looking at the world through a different filter, so all these sensors on the battlefield are making the problem much more complex. Sharing this information with coalition partners in a way that adds value is a real challenge.”

System of systems

Currently, U.S. and allied forces lack a single blue force tracking system — a comprehensive combat ID system to prevent fratricide and enable coalition forces to jointly locate, identify, track and engage targets.

DOD is working closely with NATO partners to create a coalition combat ID system that is compliant with NATO Standardized Agreements (Stanag), the technical and operational standards ratified by the NATO member states, to enable interoperability between the United States and its NATO allies.

Combat ID takes a system of systems approach, with three main components:

  • Situational awareness: Knowledge of which units are in a geographic area and what they are doing.
  • Target identification: Being able to identify a unit or vehicle within a weapons targeting system as a friendly unit.
  • Common tactics, techniques and procedures that help to organize coalition operations.

DOD and coalition partners are working on a number of blue force-type systems to provide warfighters with situational awareness. One such system, combining a computer, satellite antenna and Global Positioning System receiver, was installed in more than 1,200 U.S. Army, Marine Corps and United Kingdom combat vehicles during operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom to help commanders keep track of the location of allied forces.

However, blue force tracking only solves a piece of the friendly fire problem. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, coalition aircraft were fitted with NATO Stanag-compliant target ID equipment, and coalition vehicles were fitted with combat ID and thermal ID panels that identify them in infrared imaging systems. But this joint effort at compliance didn’t prevent several instances of fratricide, including the 2003 downing of a Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft by a U.S. Patriot missile, despite the fact that both were fitted with the equipment.

The problem in that case was an error in the targeting systems, according to a British Ministry of Defence report — the Patriot’s targeting system classified the Tornado as an anti-radar missile. “The symbol which appeared on their radar indicated that an Anti- Radiation Missile was coming directly towards them,” the report states. “The track was interrogated for [identification friend or foe] but there was no response. Having met all classification criteria, the Patriot crew launched the missile, and the Tornado, mistaken for an ‘Anti-Radiation Missile,’ was engaged in self-defence.” The lack of integration between ID systems and the targeting system resulted in the shoot-down.

Other tools for situational awareness include secure tactical radio systems and ground-to-air radios that enable allied forces on the ground to talk directly to U.S. and coalition aircraft. And additional work has been done on improving targeting systems for air-toground attacks to ensure that aircraft don’t mistakenly attack allied vehicles or ground forces.

But ensuring NATO Stanag interoperability for other target ID systems has also seen slow progress. Although NATO issued a Stanag in 2000 for the Battlefield Target Identification System and a compliant solution was successfully tested in 2001, the project was deferred in 2003 when allies and partners agreed to a DOD proposal to assess technologies other than those defined in the NATO Stanag.

BTIS has been put forward as an interoperable, target ID system that focuses on the high-priority ground- and air-to-ground environments.

Despite delays, the United States and allies have reached consensus on a technical solution for BTIS. DOD is funding a program that is compatible and aligned with BTIS, and other nations are acquiring similar capabilities.

Yet, according to a July U.K. Treasury report, BTIS is not the friendly fire panacea that some envision. “Technical solutions have been slow to mature,” the report states, “and while the Battlefield Target Identification System concept was initially seen as promising, it has been clear for some time that such a target identification system would not on its own effectively address the risk of fratricide.”

The U.K. report states that BTIS “will not be available until early in the next decade, and while equipment such as Blue Force Tracker and the Bowman communications system may improve situational awareness for the time being, the inevitable time lag in analyzing and collating information from these systems will restrict their potential for positive target identification.” The bottom line, according to the report, is that a timetable for a “credible target identification system” needs to be developed.

“The problem is there’s a multitude of technical solutions and approaches, but nobody owns it so there’s no forcing function to actually decide what we’re going to do and actually go ahead and do it,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and security think tank in Alexandria, Va.

Sorting friend and foe

However, DOD is near completion of an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration, sponsored by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, that the department says will put target ID technologies into the hands of coalition warfighters faster and at a lower cost than the traditional acquisition process.

The Coalition Combat Identification ACTD was initiated in 2001 to help reduce friendly fire incidents in coalition operations and enhance combat effectiveness. The goal of the CCID ACTD is to provide coalition warfighters, particularly shooters, with a mix of technical and procedural means to accurately identify friends and foes.

The United States and United Kingdom have conducted a number of exercises as part of the CCID ACTD, including operational demonstrations in the United States in 2003 and 2004 and a 2005 exercise called Urgent Quest held in the U.K. to demonstrate cooperative ground combat ID technologies.

Cooperative ID systems depend on a response of some sort from a target — like the identify friend or foe (IFF) systems used to identify aircraft. Noncooperative systems rely on the operator being able to identify the target visually, without a reply from the other side.

Bold Quest, a multinational technology demonstration conducted in September at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., included the participation of NATO and nine nations: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the U.K. and the United States. The U.S. military services and the Special Operations Command participated in Bold Quest — a first for a CCID ACTD exercise. The two-week demo focused on 16 cooperative and noncooperative combat ID technologies, with emphasis on the air-toground mission.

“Technology performed at Bold Quest as people expected,” said John Miller, Joint Forces Command operational manager for the CCID ACTD. “As a result, there are going to be technologies on both the cooperative and noncooperative target ID side that will come out with some strong recommendations that they move forward into acquisition.”

In addition to the BTIS radio-based combat ID and situational awareness, Bold Quest tested the Laser Target Imaging Program and Synthetic Aperture Radar/Aided Target Recognition, two noncooperative air-to-ground combat ID systems that make it easier for aircraft crews to distinguish targets on the ground better. LTIP uses laser light to allow the pilot of an aircraft to view images of a target at great range, while SAR/ATR provides high-resolution radar images so aircraft can determine whether a ground target is a vehicle or a building. The exercise also tested other cooperative identification technologies, including ground-to-ground Mode 5/S IFF — the technology originally developed to identify aircraft.

“We’ve come a long way and reached a point where we understand how to do target ID,” Miller said. “We’ve figured out both cooperative and noncooperative means to allow the warfighters to identify objects in their sights as a friend or enemy.”

“What we’re just scratching the surface on is taking that information and moving it around a network very rapidly so others can benefit and get involved with the engagement process,” Miller said.

“That’s got to happen very quickly, and in order for that to happen, we have to break down a lot of informationsharing barriers between nations, both technical and policy-based.”

The CCID ACTD has been extended through fiscal 2008, and there is a possibility that a 2009 multinational exercise — for now referred to as Next Quest — will be held with an emphasis on coalition combat ID networking.

“Perhaps we’ll do this again in an environment where we’ve gotten more permission to share information coalitionwide,” Miller said.

“We had enough permission here to do what we needed to do, but we only really scratched the surface. At Bold Quest, we were able to set up the networks between the [National Training Center] and Nellis [Air Force Base] in a way that is closer to what we would hope to see in an active theater of operations.”

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