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Sir John Bourn, the Head of the NAO, told Parliament today that Combat Identification enables the Armed Forces to improve combat effectiveness and minimise the risk of fratricide, which is the accidental destruction of friendly or allied forces (“friendly fire”). Historical research in the United States has shown that fratricide accounts for between ten and 15 per cent of casualties during operations. Other research analysis of recent exercises by the British army suggests that some 12 per cent of all ground engagements could involve fratricide.

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Combat Identification is the means by which military units distinguish friend from foe during operations. Since the Gulf War a number of factors have increased the need for the MoD to have a Combat Identification capability that improves combat effectiveness and reduces the risk of fratricide. The complexity of modern warfare and an increasing reluctance on the part of the public to accept casualties in warfare and the need to maintain military morale are among the factors behind the importance the MoD attaches to minimising fratricide incidents.

Instances where the utility of important defence equipment has been reduced to minimise the risk of fratricide (such as the ground-based air defence systems deployed to Kosovo) demonstrate the need for effective Combat Identification. In addition, the risk of fratricide is greater because the three armed services increasingly work together in joint operations and in coalition with allies.

The 1998 Strategic Defence Review and the NATO Defence Capabilities Initiative, launched at the Washington summit of 1999, provided the MoD with the structure and impetus to produce a Combat Identification strategy. In July 2001, the MoD approved a policy paper on Combat Identification and an action plan to take its policy forward. It has communicated its strategy well to key stakeholders. However, it has more work to do to see its strategy implemented in full.

The MoD has a number of projects in train which will enhance its Combat Identification capability. These include its Successor Identification Friend or Foe project, being introduced at a cost of £396 million, which will operate predominantly in the air environment. However, there will still be some gaps in capability most notably in the land environment. The MoD has therefore commissioned further research work to identify the detail of these gaps.

The MoD has worked closely with NATO on Combat Identification. Generally the MoD is well represented and active on the relevant NATO Combat Identification bodies, although the MoD considers that it does not always have adequate resources to participate as much as it would ideally like.

To further develop Combat Identification and reduce the risk of fratricide Sir John’s report recommends that the MoD should:

  • collect and disseminate data on the risk of fratricide in joint and coalition operations and continue to incorporate measures to improve Combat Identification in its current doctrine;
  • ensure that business cases for future acquisition programmes should address Combat Identification implications, where appropriate; and
  • ensure that its staff can participate fully in the work of NATO and continue to work to minimise any unnecessary overlap in the work on Combat Identification undertaken by NATO bodies.

"Causing casualties among our own or allied troops by "friendly fire" is an inevitable but profoundly regrettable risk of war. Combat Identification is a way of distinguishing friend from foe and every improvement in Combat Identification lowers the risks.

"The MoD now has a policy on Combat Identification and a strategy for taking the policy forward. In conjunction with NATO, it has more work to do to see its strategy implemented in full and my report makes recommendations to assist this process."

Sir John


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