By Matija Šerić
Friendly fire represents an extremely serious aspect of war. It is a situation in which military forces, members of the same army or allied soldiers, unintentionally open fire on each other.
The U.S. Department of Defense has professionally defined the term friendly fire as “a circumstance in which members of the U.S. military or an allied military force are mistakenly or accidentally killed or injured in action by U.S. or friendly forces actively engaged in combat with the enemy.”
Friendly fire should not be confused with the term fragging, which represents an attempt to intentionally kill a soldier or officer in the own ranks. Fragging was particularly prevalent among American troops during the Vietnam War as soldier morale declined and the intensity of combat increased—as many as 527 such cases were recorded between 1969 and 1971.
A dangerous phenomenon
While the deliberate shooting of soldiers and officers can be prevented by instilling discipline in the military ranks, friendly fire is much more difficult to limit and even more difficult to eliminate. It is a byproduct of modern warfare and something that accompanies all wars to some extent. It is certain that friendly fire will appear sooner or later in every war.
Admittedly, the unintentional targeting of one’s own comrades in arms has existed since ancient times and the Middle Ages, but it was not given importance unless a high-ranking officer was killed. Although friendly fire has existed since the beginning of mankind, as military technology advances, its occurrence is more frequent. This phenomenon has very negative and disastrous consequences, not only for the soldiers who are involved in friendly fire, but also for the military strategy, the morale of the army and the political leadership that manages the military formations.
The most powerful military in the world, the US, has been seriously investigating the phenomenon of the last three decades. “The fact that the casualty rate of friendly fire from World War I to Vietnam has been extremely low does not make the accidental killing or wounding of one’s own troops any less tragic,” stated a 1982 US Army report. “There is reason to believe that losses attributable to friendly fire in modern warfare, they make up a statistically insignificant share of total casualties (perhaps less than 2%). As warfare became more and more perfect (more advanced weapons and greater range beyond the sight of soldiers), with the ability to track who targeted and ejected whom from the machine, friendly fire imposed is a growing problem and it seems that the number of victims is much higher than the stated 2%. Modern weapons have become faster than the fingers of soldiers pulling the trigger. In the First Gulf War in 1991, 24% of the American soldiers who died in the battles died because of the friendly fire. Also, 77% of US military vehicles were destroyed by US troops.
According to one study, 10-15% of American casualties in all wars in the 20th century were the result of friendly fire. It is about the between 177.000 and 250.000 American soldiers who were mistakenly killed by the Americans themselves!
Causes of friendly fire
Friendly fire can occur for a number of reasons, from the imperfection of military technology to communication errors to human factors and poor training of soldiers. The imperfection (deficiency) of the identification system comes to the fore on complex battlefields where the dynamics of force movements are high. Complexity and rapid maneuvers make it difficult to accurately identify (un)friendly forces. “While modern weapons have advanced the military’s combat firepower, technology that can help U.S. combat personnel maintain situational awareness and distinguish friend from foe in difficult combat conditions has lagged behind”, stated a 1992 U.S. military document.
Accurate communication between different military units is essential to avoid friendly fire. Errors in the transmission of information, misunderstandings or problems in communication systems can lead to false identifications and attacks. In modern military conflicts, where complex weapon systems are used and quick responses are essential, there is an increased risk of human error. Identifying the enemy in dynamic and chaotic situations can be very difficult and challenging, and quick decision-making can result in unintended fire on one’s own troops. In addition, psychological phenomena such as stress, fatigue and lack of concentration can play a key role contributing to friendly fire. Often in chaotic situations, soldiers make disastrous decisions.
Inadequate training of soldiers on recognizing their own forces as well as the application of proper protocols can contribute to increasing the risk of friendly fire. Malfunctions and technical problems with weapons, military vehicles, radars or other equipment can cause accidental shootings or explosions. If military units do not have updated and accurate information about the current position of friendly and enemy troops on the ground, there is a greater risk of misidentification and shooting their comrades. The imperfection of the marking system also contributes to friendly fire. Marking systems, such as light signals or searchlights, can sometimes be unreliable or can be lost in complex environments, contributing to misidentification of formations.
Friendly fire in World War II
In World War I, approximately 75,000 French casualties were caused by French artillery. In the WW2, friendly fire was very present and for the first time it was a mass phenomenon. The Allies seem to have made more mistakes than the Axis Powers. Of the German failures, the sinking of the destroyers Leberecht Maass and Max Schultz by the Luftwaffe in the North Sea in February 1940 stands out. Over Tobruk in June 1940, Italian anti-aircraft fire shot down an Italian plane carrying Italo Balbo, the Italian governor of Libya and a high-ranking fascist leader and possible Mussolini successor. Sometimes examples of friendly fire would be comical if not tragic.
During the American-Canadian invasion of the Aleutian Islands in 1943, more precisely the island of Kiska, 28 Americans were killed and 50 wounded, although all Japanese forces had withdrawn before that. During the Allied invasion of Sicily, on the night of July 11, 1943, American ground and naval forces mistakenly targeted American C-47 transport planes. They shot down 23 aircraft and damaged 37, resulting in 318 casualties, with 60 airmen and 81 paratroopers killed.
Friendly fire in recent wars
In recent times, friendly fire has most often appeared in the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Friendly fire was a serious problem during the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975. Dense jungles, difficult climatic conditions for target identification, and the fast dynamics of combat contributed to the frequency of incidents. 5% of the total war casualties in the Vietnam War were the result of friendly fire. During the Iraq War (2003-2011), friendly fire occurred due to the complexity of urban warfare, the presence of guerrilla forces, and the rapid change of tactical situations.
Similar to Iraq, in the war in Afghanistan (2001-2021), friendly fire was a challenge due to the complex conditions on the ground, the presence of guerrilla forces and high dynamics. In April 2002, four Canadians were killed when a US Air National Guard pilot dropped a 226 kg bomb on them while they were conducting a night exercise in southern Afghanistan. Three British soldiers were killed in August 2007 when a US Air Force F-15 bombed their position during a firefight with the Taliban in Helmand province. Even earlier, during the war between the Soviet Army and the Mujahideen in the 1980s, friendly fire was very common among Soviet troops who were unfamiliar with the vast expanses of Afghanistan, including mountain ranges, plateaus, hills and river valleys.
The war in Syria, which has lasted from 2011 until today, is specific in terms of complexity and dynamism generated by various domestic and foreign armed groups present on the battlefields, so it is not surprising that soldiers unintentionally hit their comrades or allies.
Death of Andrija Matijaš Pauk
During the last battles during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the legendary Croatian military commander, one of the leaders of the 4th Guards Brigade of the Croatian Army (HV), Major General Andrija Matijaš Pauk, died in friendly fire. Operation South Move (October 8-15, 1995) was the last action of the Croatian forces (HV and HVO) in which the Serbian forces were pushed to only 23 km from Banja Luka. In the chaos of the battle in the area of Mrkonjić Grad, on the front lines were mixed Croatian and Serbian soldiers and armored vehicles that were very similar.
Matijaš, unfortunately, was killed by friendly fire while leading his tankmen in an attack, which was usual considering that he was an expert in tank battles. The death of the major general was kept secret for several days so that the news would not demoralize the soldiers. Although the Southern Move was a great military victory for the Croatian forces, the death of Matijaš left a bitter taste of the victory.
The consequences of friendly fire are serious and can have lasting negative effects. The loss of life and serious injuries (physical and mental) of soldiers who are victims of such incidents are often irreparable. In addition, such incidents can lead to a loss of confidence within one’s own military forces, which can have a serious impact on their combat effectiveness and cooperation.
Tactically and strategically, friendly fire can disrupt the progress of military operations and lead to changes in planning. Enemies can use the confusion created by such incidents to increase their pressure or gain other strategic advantages. In addition, the political context of the conflict can be significantly distorted, as incidents of friendly fire often attract media and public attention. If an army often participates in incidents, it means that something is not right hierarchically, which can put the defense minister and the government itself in a difficult position if it is waging a war.
Similarity to unintentional killing of civilians
The phenomenon of friendly fire is very similar to the unintentional killing of civilians. The main difference is that the suffering of civilians is viewed differently. Victims are often treated as “civilian casualties”, and the even more common term is “collateral damage”.
However, military leaders were rarely held accountable for unintentional civilian casualties. For example the trial for involuntary manslaughter took place during World War II. It is known mostly because the president of the court was the American actor and at the same time Colonel James Stewart. On March 4, 1945, six USAAF B-24H bombers hit Zurich with 12.5 tons of explosives and 12 tons of incendiary material, killing five people. The planned destination was Aschaffenburg near Frankfurt am Main, 290 km north. Six bombers veered off course and their crews believed they were bombing Freiburg. The lead pilot and navigator were tried but eventually acquitted of “unjustly and negligently” bombing friendly territory. The cause of the error was “bad weather and equipment failure”.
In modern times, mostly civilians have died as unintended targets in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the Syrian Civil War, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and BIH.
Friendly fire prevention has become a priority for modern armed forces. The development of sophisticated technology to identify and track one’s own forces, improved communication systems, and training of soldiers to recognize allied forces are key factors in reducing risk. Different branches of the armed forces and different units conduct simulations and exercises to improve mutual understanding and cooperation between different units and branches.
Technological progress brings new possibilities in reducing the risk of friendly fire. The development of autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and systems for marking and identifying troops can contribute to increasing the precision and speed of identification. However, with these technological advances, there is also a need for ethical use of such systems to avoid unwanted consequences. In addition to all this, American military officers point out that in addition to military technology and quality training, military doctrine (about how and when to use fire) is an equally important factor in reducing losses from one’s own forces.
Friendly fire poses a serious challenge in military conflicts, with the potential for serious strategic losses on the battlefield. The risk of such incidents necessarily requires constant improvement of technology, training of soldiers and application of precise protocols to reduce the likelihood of their occurrence. The ability of military forces to effectively recognize, identify, and communicate with their own forces is critical to preventing friendly fire and preserving lives and resources in wartime conflicts. The lives of soldiers are the most valuable part of any military force. Despite all the military technology, infantry is still essential for securing and defending any city or other ground area.