Friendly Fire

Fratricide: an ugly word that means “brother killer” when translated from its Latin roots.  Known in the fighter pilot world as “frat”, it truly is a four-letter “F” word in all respects.  I approach this difficult topic with the goal of demonstrating how important life or death decisions must be made in a matter of seconds by the combat pilots of our military.

I shouldn’t have to explain why accidentally shooting down a friendly aircraft is bad.  When it happens, and it has happened several times in history, it is easy to shake your head in disgust and think, “those idiots had no idea what they were doing.”  It is, after all, a sad and sobering event.  In the fog and confusion of war, one must be at the top of their game to ensure bullets and missiles are properly allocated to enemy targets.

As for today’s fighter pilot, it is not good enough to be proficient at maneuvering to a weapons employment zone and employing a weapon.  You must know identification (ID) criteria cold and use those criteria to correctly apply combat Rules of Engagement (ROE).  If ID and ROE are properly followed, fratricide should theoretically never happen.

ID will typically consist of electronic and procedural indications.  Electronic indications can be a response to an interrogation of Identification Friend or Foe [IFF] or can come from other electronic data provided by aircraft sensors such as radar.  Procedural indications typically involve certain routes, altitudes, locations, and times in which a friendly aircraft is expected to fly in certain situations or the origination point of an enemy aircraft.   The ID criteria will help the pilot determine if a target is friend, neutral, foe (bandit), or unknown (bogey).

Once the ID is determined, you need to know what to do with the target based upon its categorization of identification.  This is where ROE comes into play.  If an aircraft is friendly or neutral, that’s easy: don’t shoot them!  If an aircraft is deemed to be a foe or a bogey you can’t automatically shoot them down.  They usually have to meet additional criteria defined by the combatant commander as hostile act or hostile intent.  I won’t even begin to explain the myriad possibilities that fall under hostile act and hostile intent.  Suffice it to say that ROE is typically composed with the close guidance of military lawyers in accordance with international law, and often times with inputs from political pundits tasked with ensuring combat in the region follows United States foreign policy.

Ok, so I probably didn’t really do justice to how complicated this process can be.  There is a lot of moving parts and pieces in combat and information flows at a premium.  Without information from various agencies, as well as command and control, the fighter pilot can often find him or herself between a rock and a hard spot.  Take for example a well-known case of fratricide that took place nearly two decades ago.

On April 14, 1994 during Operation Provide Comfort (a follow-on contingency to Desert Storm) two U.S. F-15C fighter jets shot down two American UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters carrying 26 people by accident.  The Blackhawks were operating in a no-fly zone, but were scheduled to do so by the Air Tasking Order (ATO – a document published daily authorizing combat missions for the day).  The Blackhawks were squawking IFF mode 1 and 2, but were not squawking the correct mode 1 in accordance with the ATO.  To make matters worse, the Blackhawks were flying through mountainous terrain, which made radar tracking by the airborne controllers (C2) virtually impossible.

The two F-15Cs checked into their kill box with C2 who did not notify them of the friendly helicopters in the airspace.  The Eagles took to the task of clearing the airspace for additional friendlies that would be passing through on the ground.  It was only a matter of time before the F-15Cs had radar contact on the two Blackhawks.  They interrogated IFF modes 1 and 4 and saw the incorrect response to mode 1.  Had they interrogated mode 2, they would have seen a correct code being squawked.

UH-60 Blackhawk

Shortly after the electronic pickup, the Eagle flight lead decided to visually identify (VID) the two helicopters and did so via an extremely fast flyby.  During his flyby, the Eagle flight lead told C2 he was “tally two Hinds.”  C2 never told the Eagles about the Blackhawks being in the area in the first place, and there were multiple communications breakdowns onboard the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) that impeded the proper flow of information to the pilots of the F-15Cs.

Mi-24 Hind

The Mi-24 “Hind” is a Russian built transport helicopter that can look fairly similar to a Blackhawk in certain configurations and from certain aspect angles.  Both Eagle pilots mistook the Blackhawks for Hinds and circled back around for the kill.  One Blackhawk was shot with an Aim-120 AMRAAM and the other with an Aim-9 Sidewinder killing all 26 people aboard both helicopters.

As you can see, neither friendly electronic nor procedural indications were correctly used to identify the helicopters.  Even without knowing all of the ROE I can guess they didn’t apply the correct procedures to deem the aircraft hostile.

I can’t begin to understand what was going through the minds of the F-15C pilots.  Why would they be so hasty to ID the aircraft as foe and shoot them down?  Like I said before, the fog and friction of war can be a very confusing thing.

In today’s fighter training environment ID and ROE are heavily stressed to pilots and controllers alike.  If a pilot accidentally takes a shot at a friendly aircraft on a training mission no one dies because no real air-to-air missiles are involved.  Even with no actual loss, it is a big deal.  The pilot who committed the four-letter “F” word (it’s such an ugly word fighter pilots don’t even want to say it!) must buy a keg of beer for the squadron – and that’s the easy part.  He must then take a bouquet of flowers to the wife of the guy he theoretically shot down and explain to her in person why he shot her husband down.  It’s an emotional experience, but it only just begins to drive the seriousness of combat home.

An old fighter pilot saying goes: “If there is a doubt, there is no doubt.”  The fighter pilot has great power at the touch of a button – it is not something to be taken lightly.