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Worst Friendly Fire Case Tied to Thermal Sights of Tanks

November 12, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The worst U.S. instance of ″friendly fire″ in the Persian Gulf War was caused mostly by American tank forces mistaking a fairly harmless grenade assault for enemy tank fire, according to Army records. Six U.S. soldiers were killed, 25 were wounded, and five M1-A1 tanks and five Bradley fight vehicles were destroyed by fire from their own forces during a running battle against units of Iraq’s Republican Guard on that pitch-black morning of Feb. 27, the records said.

The Army said the major - though apparently not sole - source of the confusion was the image presented M1-AI gunners when rocket-propelled grenades fired by Iraqi infantrymen exploded harmlessly off the thick skins of other American tanks. Viewing the distant action through thermal - heat detecting -

ights, the gunners mistook the grenade flashes as hostile cannon bursts from the tanks themselves, and then fired at them, the documents said.

The records were released to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The Army earlier acknowledged it lost a total of 21 soldiers to friendly fire in the course of the 100-hour ground war, but it had not previously disclosed such details of how the mistakes were made.

The records show that on that overcast beginning of the final full day of the 100-hour ground war, the 3rd Brigade of the ″Hell on Wheels″ 2nd Armored was pushing eastward through southern Iraq, clashing repeatedly with elements of a Republican Guard armored division. The Iraqi forces were no match for U.S. armor but they fought hard. The chaotic battle raged almost uninterrupted for five hours.

″It was a hard-fought battle; the Iraqis presented a 360 degree threat, and our soldiers gave a splendid account of themselves,″ Lt. Col. John S. Brown, commander of the unit’s 2nd Battalion said in a sworn statement to investigators.

Brown acknowledged that tanks from his battalion may have been responsible for the destruction of two U.S. tanks and three Bradleys fighting alongside his unit. He said confusion over the Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade fire was the likely reason.

The shoulder-fired, rocket-propelled grenade was a mainstay of the Republican Guard infantrymen who popped up from trenches, ditches and bunkers to fire from every direction at passing American tanks and other armored vehicles. The Army said none managed to pierce U.S. tank armor.

When these grenades hit M1-A1 Abrams tanks, the flashes could be detected from distances of more than 2 miles by the thermal sights of other Abrams tank gunners, who were unsure where the Iraqi forces were positioned, the documents said. In some cases, gunners who saw these flashes disastrously concluded they were bursts of cannon fire from Iraqi tanks. Rather than wait to be fired upon, the gunners pulled the trigger, the reports said.

″It was confusing, it was dark, it was scary,″ said Col. David S. Weisman, commander of the 3rd Brigade, whose three armored battalions fought what he called the most demanding and difficult battle any soldier would ever encounter.

Weisman’s brigade of 4,400 soldiers lost only six men in the ground war - all in the friendly fire incident of Feb. 27.

In a telephone interview Monday, Weisman defended his troops’ actions, saying that although mistakes may have been made, the brigade fought brilliantly and without the aid of a fool-proof system of distinguishing between friend and foe.

″We knew that control (of friendly tank fire) was going to be a problem,″ he said. ″Our equipment is so lethal that there is no room for mistakes.″

Fatigue may have contributed to the problem that day. The 3rd Brigade had raced more than 60 miles into Iraq when the big battle began. The soldiers had gone for as long as 36 hours without sleep, according to the investigation reports.

The reasons behind the incident, as described in the officers’ statements, reflect the dangers of a high-speed, nighttime ground assault using high-tech weaponry.

″Every effort was made by commanders to maintain control during what was very obvious, to those who were there, to be a very dangerous and potentially disastrous evening,″ Weisman wrote in his report.

Three Bradley fighting vehicles with B Company, Task Force 1-41, were struck by friendly tank fire shortly after the battle began.

Later in the battle, an Abrams tank carrying the commander of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armor was destroyed by another Abrams shortly after it was hit, but not damaged, by a grenade. Another tank in B Company about 100 yards away, turning in the direction of the tank volley, also was destroyed, as were three other tanks of nearby A Company.

At the end of the battle, two Bradleys whose soldiers had been rooting out Iraqi soldiers from their bunkers were hit by Abrams cannon fire after they wandered out of their assigned sector of the battlefield, the documents said. --------

-A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt fired on a 1st Marine Division observation post; no casualties. Jan. 24:

-One Marine and one sailor from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force wounded when an A-10 strafed a Marine Corps Hummvee and a 5-ton truck about 60 miles west of Kafji, Saudi Arabia. Jan. 29:

-Four Marines from the 1st Marine Division killed when a Tow missile fired from a light armored vehicle hit their light armored vehicle west of Kafji, Saudi Arabia.

-Seven Marines killed and two wounded from the 1st Marine Division when a Maverick missile fired by an A-10 malfunctioned and hit a light armored vehicle. Feb. 2:

-One Marine killed and two wounded 1st Marine Division by 500-pound bombs when their vehicles were mistaken for Iraqi vehicles during an air attack by a Marine Corps A-6E.

-Two soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division wounded when a Harm missile fired by an Air Force F-4G missed its target. Feb. 4:

-A weapon suspected to have been a Harm missile landed near the USS Nicholas with minimal damage to the ship and no casualties. Feb. 14:

-Three soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division wounded in a skirmish in Arky Amah Al Jadid, Saudi Arabia. Feb. 15:

-A U.S. Navy A-6E pilot from the USS Kennedy reported he was fired upon by a surface-to-air missile; no casualties. Feb. 17:

-Two soldiers killed, six wounded from the 1st Infantry Division and a ground surveillance vehicle damaged when a Hellfire missile from an AH-64 Apache helicopter struck their Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. Feb. 23:

-One Marine killed and one wounded from the 1st Marine Division when a Harm missile from an undetermined source struck a radar unit. Feb. 24:

-One Marine from the 1st Marine Division killed when a tank opened fire on his convoy.

-A weapon, suspected to be a Harm missile, apparently lands close to the USS Jarrett with no casualties or damage to the ship. Feb. 25:

-USS Jarrett fired at a chaff rocket launched by USS Missouri resulting in superficial damage to USS Missouri but no casualties. Feb. 26:

-Three soldiers killed and three wounded from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment when machine gun fire from a tank hit their armored personnel carrier.

-One soldier killed from the 3rd Armored Division when a premature burst of artillery round hit his vehicle.

-Five soldiers from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment wounded when their Bradley infantry fighting vehicle was incorrectly identified and hit by a Tow missile.

-An M1-A1 tank opened fire on two others; no one was injured.

-Two soldiers killed and six wounded 3rd Armored Division when their Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, operating in reduced visibility, was hit by a M1A1 tank.

-An M1-A1 tank opened fire on two Bradley infantry fighting vehicles operating in reduced visibility; no one was injured. Feb. 27:

-Six soldiers killed and 25 wounded from the 2nd Armored Division when M1- A1 tanks opened fire on five other M1-A1 tanks and five Bradley infantry fighting vehicles that were fighting enemy forces.

-Two soldiers killed and nine wounded from the 24th Infantry Division after an M1-A1 tank incorrectly identified and fired at three Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.

-One soldier killed and one wounded from the 1st Infantry Division when an M1-A1 tank incorrectly identified two Bradley infantry fighting vehicles at night in the rain and opened fire.

-One soldier killed and two wounded from the 1st Armored Division when an M1-A1 tank incorrectly identified and fired at two Bradley infantry fighting vehicles operating in rain and smoke at night during an attack on a bunker complex.

-Two soldiers killed and two wounded from the 3rd Armored Division when their vehicle, operating at night in reduced visibility, was hit by an M1-A1 tank.

-Two soldiers killed and nine wounded from the 24th Infantry Division after an M1-A1 tank incorrectly identified and fired at three Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.

-One soldier killed and one wounded from the 1st Infantry Division when an M1-A1 tank incorrectly identified two Bradley infantry fighting vehicles at night in the rain and opened fire.

-One soldier killed and two wounded from the 1st Armored Division when an M1-A1 tank incorrectly identified and fired at two Bradley infantry fighting vehicles operating in rain and smoke at night during an attack on a bunker complex.

-Two soldiers killed and two wounded from the 3rd Armored Division when their vehicle, operating at night in reduced visibility, was hit by an M1-A1 tank.

-One soldier killed and one wounded from the 1st Armored Division by machine gun fire when they were mistaken for Iraqi forces. March 27:

-USS Avenger received small arms fire while in the vicinity of Ras Al Qalayah; no casualties. -------

In the most disastrous U.S. ″friendly fire″ incident of the Gulf War, American gunners mistook the flashes of Iraqi grenades bouncing off U.S. tanks for enemy tank fire and launched a lethal barrage on their own troops, Army records show.

In the early-morning darkness of Feb. 27, the flashes of light created by the grenades’ relatively harmless impact made some gunners in the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division think the American tanks whose armor was deflecting the projectiles were actually Iraqi tanks firing their cannons.

So they fired back.

The gunners didn’t actually ″see″ the tanks or the flashes. They detected them in their thermal sights, which can distinguish variations in heat, such as that given off by vehicles or guns, from distances of more than 2 miles.

The projectiles were fired from shoulder-held weapons called rocket- propelled grenades. The Army says none managed to pierce U.S. tank armor.

Even now, the Army says it is not sure exactly how many U.S. soldiers were killed as a direct result of this confusion. Six soldiers of the 3rd Brigade were killed and 25 were wounded in the Feb. 27 battle, which raged almost uninterrupted for about five hours, ending just before dawn.

The confusion over the Iraqi anti-tank gunfire apparently did not play a role in each of the American casualties, but it was a major contributor to the ″friendly fire″ problem that day, according to Army investigation reports released to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that a major problem for U.S. ground forces in the war was their occasional misidentification of enemy combat vehicles. The Army lost 21 soldiers to friendly fire in the course of the 100-hour ground war, but it had been unwilling to disclose details of exactly how the mistakes were made.

At just past midnight on Feb. 27, the 3rd Brigade of the ″Hell on Wheels″ 2nd Armored was pushing eastward through southern Iraq, clashing repeatedly with elements of an Iraqi Republican Guard armored division. The Iraqi forces were no match for U.S. armor, but they fought hard.

The Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade was a mainstay of the Republican Guard infantrymen who popped up from trenches, ditches and bunkers to fire from every direction at passing American tanks and other armored vehicles.

When an Iraqi projectile hit a U.S. M-1A1 Abrams tank, the impact created a small flash of light that could be detected in the thermal sights of other Abrams tank gunners far in the distance who were unsure where the Iraqi forces were positioned.

In some cases, gunners who saw these flashes figured they were bursts of cannon fire from the tanks, which led them to the disastrous conclusion that the tanks were Iraqi. Rather than wait to be fired upon the gunners pulled the trigger.

″It was confusing, it was dark, it was scary,″ said Col. David S. Weisman, commander of the 3rd Brigade, whose three armored battalions fought an almost non-stop battle that for many of the Americans was their first taste of combat.

Weisman’s brigade of 4,400 soldiers lost only six men in the ground war - all in the friendly fire incident of Feb. 27, which was the last full day of the war.

Weisman, in a telephone interview Monday, defended his troops’ actions, saying that although mistakes may have been made, the brigade fought brilliantly under extraordinarily difficult and chaotic battlefield conditions.

″We knew that control (of friendly tank fire) was going to be a problem,″ he said. ″Our equipment is so lethal that there is no room for mistakes.″

In his investigation report dated March 10, Weisman concluded that a key reason for the fratricide was the misidentification of tanks being hit with the Iraqi anti-tank fire. His conclusion is supported by the sworn statements of company commanders and other officers who led the 2nd Armored into battle that morning.

Fatigue may have contributed to the problem. The 3rd Brigade had raced more than 60 miles into Iraq when the big battle began. The soldiers had gone for as long as 36 hours without sleep, according to the investigation reports.

The reasons behind the incident, as described in the officers’ statements, reflect the dangers of conducting a high-speed nighttime ground assault using high-tech weaponry.

″Every effort was made by commanders to maintain control during what was very obvious, to those who were there, to be a very dangerous and potentially disastrous evening,″ Weisman wrote in his report.

Despite those efforts, disaster did strike. Three Bradley infantry armored vehicles with B Company, Task Force 1-41, were struck by friendly tank fire shortly after the battle began.

It was not clear from the documents whether the Army ever officially established blame for that mistake. But in his sworn statement, Lt. Col. John S. Brown, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armored, said it was possible that his C Company tank gunners mistakenly identified the Bradleys as Iraqi very obvious, to those who were there, to be a very dangerous and potentially disastrous evening,″ Weisman wrote in his report.

Despite those efforts, disaster did strike. Three Bradley infantry armored vehicles with B Company, Task Force 1-41, were struck by friendly tank fire shortly after the battle began.

It was not clear from the documents whether the Army ever officially established blame for that mistake. But in his sworn statement, Lt. Col. John S. Brown, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armored, said it was possible that his C Company tank gunners mistakenly identified the Bradleys as Iraqi vehicles.

Later in the battle, an Abrams tank carrying the commander of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 66th Armored was destroyed by another Abrams shortly after it was hit, but not damaged, by a projectile from an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade. Another tank in B Company, turning in the direction of the tank volley, also was destroyed, as were three other tanks of nearby A Company.

In the final moment, two Bradley fighting vehicles whose soldiers had been rooting out Iraqi soldiers from their bunkers were hit by Abrams cannon fire after they wandered out of their assigned sector of the battlefield. -------

The Pentagon should not be hasty in its investigations of friendly fire deaths in order not to mislead families of the victims, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Tuesday.

In testimony before a special Senate panel, Cheney stood by the Army’s decision to delay informing families about the circumstances of some soldiers’ deaths in the Persian Gulf war until all suspected cases of friendly fire had been fully investigated.

″The friendly fire incidents are a very serious matter for any military to account for missing soldiers in the Vietnam War. He was asked about a published report that the Army had waited several months to notify relatives of soldiers killed by friendly fire in the Gulf conflict.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that even though top Army officials knew the details of some friendly fire incidents in March, they decided not to inform the next-of-kin until Aug. 12. That was one day before a news conference at the Pentagon where officials disclosed that friendly fire caused 35 of the 148 combat deaths during the war.

The Post said that in 33 of the 35 cases, Army and Marine commanders knew the cause by the end of March. All but one of the families, however, had to wait until August for official acknowledgment, the newspaper reported.

Army officials confirmed that while the Marine Corps had informally told some family members that there was the suspicion of friendly fire, the Army’s top leaders decided to inform all affected Army families simultaneously - and only after all the cases had been resolved.

The Post said initial Army reports from the Persian Gulf listed ″enemy″ as the source of fire in all but two of the Army’s 21 fatal cases of friendly fire. The reports were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the paper said.

In 11 cases, it said, there was strong, immediate evidence that U.S. forces had inflicted losses on themselves.

Cheney did not deny the Post’s account.

He said the Army conducted ″a very thorough investigation″ of such reports. He said notification was easier when investigators could tell by the residue of certain munitions that a soldier could not have been killed by enemy fire.

″I think the worst thing we could have done would have been to go too quickly″ and run the risk of erroneously attributing a death to friendly fire, he said.

An Army regulation requires the service to make immediate and full disclosure of friendly fire to next of kin. The Post asserted the Army disobeyed its own regulation.

The report quoted Lt. Gen. William H. Reno, deputy chief of staff for personnel, as saying: ″I am obliged to comply with my own regs, but I am also obliged to deviate from them, informally in many cases, where it’s prudent to do so.

″Every decision we made with respect to notification of families was made with the motive of care and compassion for the families,″ he said.

An Army spokesperson, Maj. Barbara Goodno, said Army officials had no intention of deceiving anyone about the incidents.

″There was never any intent not to provide information to the families,″ she said.

She said the decision to delay was made by Reno ″after consultation with his superiors.″

She acknowledged that while Army officials had information about 10 of service’s 21 friendly fire incidents, it could not determine the facts of the remaining 11 until extensive radiological testing had been conducted. Only U.S. troops used uranium-depleted weaponry in the war, thereby identifying the source of the fire.

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