Friendly Fire

American Soldiers Are Still Inadvertently Killing Each Other

These days, when the American military goes to war, it's a pretty safe bet the United States will win.

But despite all the revolutionary advances brought about by precision-guided weapons, the U.S. has still not solved the age-old problem of fratricide – killing your own soldiers by mistake. CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports for 60 Minutes II.

In the first Gulf War, one-fourth of the Americans killed in combat were killed by other Americans. And it happened again in Afghanistan – four Americans, four Canadians and 10 Afghan soldiers killed by friendly fire.

The biggest – and most costly – battle for American forces in Afghanistan was Operation Anaconda, the assault last March on al Qaeda's last stronghold. Apache helicopters and other aircraft were providing cover for troops on the ground. Then the Apaches started taking hits, and so did the men on the ground.

"I was told initially that he was killed by (enemy) mortar fire," says Sheila Harriman, whose husband, Stanley, was the first American killed in Operation Anaconda.

"His truck got hit in the front left side and he was the passenger in the front seat," she continues. "The next hit came directly below my husband in his truck, and the shrapnel came up through the vehicle, so it went through his legs, his chest, his arms, severed a couple of his fingers, through his face, ripped most of his ear off, and up through the back of his head."

He never had a chance.

"No, sir," says Mrs. Harriman. "But he also didn't feel any pain. That brings me comfort."

Sheila Harriman's pain was grotesquely compounded by what happened next.

"Until I got a knock on my door several weeks later," she recalls, "I believed all the way up till then that my husband was killed by the enemy, by al Qaeda… The knock on the door was from News Channel 11 which is a local news station here. The gentleman on the other side of the door told me that it was released from the Pentagon, from General Franks, that my husband was…incident was being investigated for friendly fire. That was the first time I had even heard it."

The Army did not tell her. A reporter did.

No matter who fired the fatal shot, Stanley Harriman is still a combat casualty, but to his widow, it makes all the difference.

"I was devastated," she explains, "because the enemy was supposed to have killed my husband. That was a little different to swallow than thinking it was one of his own men, that it was an American that killed him."

There were 28 friendly fire incidents in the first Gulf War. It is a sickening sight – American firepower killing American soldiers.

"Unfortunately, it gets very chaotic," says retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan. "People get scared, they're tired, they're wounded in some cases, they haven't eaten for days, and stuff happens."

Sullivan remembers how he found out "stuff" had happened in the first Gulf War. The Army had just fought and won a glorious victory, and Sullivan had sent a team to the desert to reconstruct the great tank battles of the war. But the report he got back was not so glorious.

"The gent who called me said, 'Look, you're probably not gonna like what we found, but here's what we found.'"

They found that American weapons worked to perfection against the thick armor of the Iraqi tanks, but they also destroyed American armor. Three-fourths of the American tanks destroyed on the battlefield were hit by friendly fire.

"So," says Sullivan, "essentially what we learned was: we, in fact, killed ourselves."

A total of 35 Americans were killed by friendly fire in the Gulf War, and it didn't end when the shooting stopped. Three years later, two Air Force jets patrolling Iraq's northern no-fly zone mistook a pair of Black Hawk helicopters for Iraqi aircraft and shot them down -- 15 more Americans killed by friendly fire.

Sullivan keeps a piece of parachute silk with the names of 44 men killed in action while he was Chief of Staff of the Army. Not all of them were victims of friendly fire, but some were.

"I think about those men every day. OK? There's not one day I don't think about them. And when I'm in this office, I'm standing over there on the phone, and they're right beside me," he says.

"Friendly fire is a term that's always mystified me. It's never friendly. You're either killing the enemy or you're killing your own soldiers, and there's nothing friendly about it. It's just a mistake," says Major General Paul Eaton, who commands the infantry training school at Fort Benning, Ga. He adds that friendly fire always comes back to the basics of combat.

He explains, "The three great questions on the battlefield have always been: 'Where am I?', 'Where's my buddy?' and 'Where's the enemy?'"

But any soldier knows those questions are easier asked than answered in the heat of battle, particularly when, as in the Gulf War, American tanks, for all their fire and maneuver power, had no sure way of keeping track of each other.

Says Sullivan, "The only way you would know where the other tanks were is if you talked to them on a radio:

'Well, where are you?'

'I'm here. Where are you?'

And then somebody would say, 'Well, I'm north of you.'

Yeah, well, that's all interesting except, in the middle of the night, where's north?"

The Army had to make its communications as accurate as its weapons. And so it developed a computer system to give every armored vehicle the same picture of the battlefield -- blue for friendly, red for enemy.

Global position satellites track the blue friendly forces. As enemy tanks are spotted, their positions are plotted in red on the same screen. Any gunner logged onto the net can tell at a glance if it's safe to open fire.

All very neat and tidy in a classroom, but will it really keep track of every piece of equipment – ours and theirs – in a full scale, full tilt invasion of Iraq? And will all the American vehicles even be equipped with that computer system?

Of the Army divisions today, how many of them have this capability?

Says Eaton, "It is proliferated throughout the Army."

So any of the tanks, any of the infantry fighting vehicles that are over in Kuwait today, they will all have this system?

"We have applied this system to all units. That's all I'm going to say," Eaton replies.

In fact, the 4th Infantry Division, whose equipment is still stuck on ships waiting for approval to off load in Turkey, is the only division deployed for this coming war that has been completely equipped with the new technology.

The Army has rushed the system to the forces on the southern front in Kuwait but admits the distribution is – to use its word – thin, about one out of every 14 tanks. So, once again, it will come down to human beings calling the shots.

"Young guys out there, making decisions that save lives and cost lives," says Sgt. Kenneth Killingsworth. "I mean, that's war, and whoever makes sense out of all that chaos is gonna win."

And, he adds, you have to be quick about it, because in ground combat, the one who shoots first usually wins.

As a practical matter, how long do they have to make that decision by the time you see an enemy?

"It could be anywhere from 9 seconds to 21 seconds," Killingsworth replies.

The better you can see what you're shooting at, the less likely you are to shoot one of your own men. The Bradley fighting vehicle has a thermal site which can give the gunner a very clear picture before he pulls the trigger. He should be able to see the piece of thermal tape on a soldier's arm that identifies him (or her) as friendly.

The Army says the exact markings that will be used to identify American forces going into Iraq are secret, but insists every soldier who goes into combat will be wearing thermal tape and every armored vehicle will be fitted with thermal panels.

But those markings didn't save Stanley Harriman.

Mrs. Harriman says, "I also spoke to the men that were on the ground with my husband. They said, 'Yes, they were marked.' Their persons were marked. Their vehicles were marked."

According to the investigation into Harriman's death, the AC-130's computerized navigation system went down, and when the crew tried to find their way by using prominent landmarks on the ground, they got lost. When the gunship reported seeing a group of vehicles, no one realized it was Harriman and his men, even though they were wearing those friendly markings.

Not only that, Harriman was listening on the radio as the AC-130 zeroed in for the kill.

"He could hear the AC-130 describing what they saw, how many vehicles in the convoy," says Mrs. Harriman, "and Stanley radioed over to the other ground controller: 'You are describing us. You're describing us.'"

Despite all that, the AC-130 was cleared to open fire. Every safeguard to protect friendly forces failed again, 12 years after the Army set out to solve the problem.

Concludes Sullivan, "Much as I'd like to say we can solve it, I don't think we can solve it. I don't think we can solve that 100 percent… This is a human endeavor. It is the most fundamental human endeavor. It's dangerous. It's serious business…This is serious business, serious business. And, by the way, say a prayer for the troops."