"History shows that fratricide is an unavoidable feature of warfare."In the fog of war, accidents have always happened. Although true, these sentiments will be of little consolation to the families of the three British soldiers killed on August the 23 when a single 500lb bomb was dropped on to the British fighting position in error. But there is something else. To us in Britain the phrase 'friendly fire' has in recent years come to represent a very particular brand of fratricide: the deaths of UK soldiers under American fire.
Not surprisingly, the common reaction in Britain was almost immediate: why did it always seem to be American pilots who killed our men? The second, and just as important question is, do British soldiers have the right equipment to protect themselves against friendly fire?
As an investigation began, commander of the British taskforce in Afghanistan, went out of his way to play down any suggestion that the American pilots had been too gung-ho. Of course we understand that pilots flying at high speed find it immensely difficult to distinguish friend from foe on the ground when the combatants are so close together. And the technology is not always available to help them. Not surprisingly there have been many close calls and occasional tragedies.
Alternatives? Not really. The air cover must be relied on unless more troops were deployed on the ground. As one defence analyst puts it: "If you don't want that [air cover] then you have to provide enough troops on the ground so that you don't need to call on the Americans to pull your chestnuts out of the fire." So, the alternative - more ground troops, which we don't have, not now anyway. Which brings us back to American pilots and equipment for our soldiers.
We know that this is not the first time that American bombing activities come under scrutiny and criticism - only recently a senior British officer requested that US special operations forces pull out of his area because they were calling in too many airstrikes and killing too many civilians. Reportedly, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots said that they and the French pilots had often pulled out of attacks because of the risk of killing civilians, only to see US pilots called in to attack the same targets. The only other case of British service personnel being killed by in friendly fire involving American military personnel in Afghanistan until now is still under investigation. So we do have valid reasons to be suspicious when told an official explanation.
As for the right equipment, there has been a constant criticism of the MoD since the first Gulf war in 1991, that Britain is not doing enough to protect its troops against friendly fire incidents. At the recent inquest into the death of Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull, who was killed when two US A10s attacked his convoy early in the Iraq war, these questions were asked again.
The Commons public accounts committee criticised the MoD five years ago for not doing enough to protect military personnel from friendly fire accidents. When it revisited the issue in May, it found that the situation was scarcely any better, concluding that “...half the programmes seeking a tactical solution for friendly fire had been delayed, deferred or changed. The issue appears to have the low priority at the MoD.”
Sending troops to Afghanistan, defence secretary John Reid said he would be ‘very happy’ if they did not fire a shot. Well, after more deaths last week, with casualties fast becoming the highest since the WWII, his words ring glib and hollow. In the face of this sustained danger in Iraq and Afganistan, Britain's armed forces deserve our every support.
This brings us to the subject of Military Covenant. The Military Covenant sets up that in return for asking our Service personnel to risk their lives and limbs on our behalf, the people of this country through the Government undertake to give them the resources they need. The Government is also under obligation to ensure that if injured the soldiers will receive the best possible care (including long-term care), and if killed their families will be looked after.
They wish it was - there is a growing feeling amongst the Forces that the Government doesn't hold its side of the bargain. Gordon Brown came out of holiday hideout to co-ordinate the Government's response to gun crime, however, on war he remains conspicuously silent. But then what else can you expect from him?
I quite agree with the shadow defence secretary Liam Fox who spoke for a lot of people when he went after Brown for starving the armed forces of funding: "As chancellor, Gordon Brown never gave defence much priority and now the skies are black with chickens coming home to roast." How true, but tell it to the lads...
P.S. You may also find interesting the following links:
- British Armed Forces Federation (BAFF) - an independent voice for the British Armed Forces;
- Army Rumour Service (ARRSE) – an informal, Army orientated Forum;
- Rum Ration - The Royal Navy and Royal Marines unofficial Forum;
- Association of British EX-Service personnel (ABEX) - promotes and supports the welfare of ex-forces personnel and their families;
- Petition - Petition to 10, Downing Street in support of the project to provide a "home from home" for relatives of injured service personnel.