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Humans Still A Factor In War: Not Automated Yet
A pair of A-10 (pictured) pilots were involved in a friendly fire incident in Iraq in 2003.
A pair of A-10 (pictured) pilots were involved in a friendly fire incident in Iraq in 2003.
by Hil Anderson
UPI Correspondent
Los Angeles (UPI) Mar 02, 2007
The tragic case of the "friendly fire" that killed a British soldier in Iraq in 2003 is a driving force of U.S. military efforts to tie its fighting forces closer together. The finest technical minds of the Pentagon and their counterparts in the defense industry are in the midst of multiple programs to make computers and bombs smarter and overcome the foilbles of human warriors amid a fog of war that hasn't yet lifted.

The human element was hardwired into warfare well before Stonewall Jackson was picked off by one of his own Confederate infantrymen in 1863, and as well in 2003 when a pair of A-10 pilots believed it when they were told there were no "friendlies" in the particular area of the Iraqi desert they were prowling.

While the engineering crowd continues to push the design envelope, "human factors" researchers issued a paper last week that reconfirmed that wars are still fought by people and that teamwork and communications are basic required skills.

"It is no surprise that military forces are turning to technology to reduce the risk of fratricide," said the paper being published in the April issue of "Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society."

The paper continued: "After all, human error is inevitable and human capabilities are limited. However, the ultimate decision to fire a weapon remains in the hands of its operator."

The conclusions came out of the University of Central Florida and the Air Force Research Laboratory, and were basically an analysis of friendly fire incidents since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003.

It concluded that it would be a mistake to hone in on individual errors, such as the one made by the controllers who informed the A-10s that there were no allied forces in the area when in fact a British column was rolling along a road beneath them.

The researchers said it would be better to look at the whole system and the concept of "shared cognition," a scientific term for the right hand knowing what the left hand is doing.

Its importance is in the shared knowledge, communications and trust built into a team effort, such as a military operation, which allows the team to realize when one of the cogs in the machine is not working properly and to then take steps to correct it -- even under extremely confusing and stressful circumstances.

"It is legitimate to conclude," said the paper, "that when shared cognition 'fails,' the incidence of fratricide increases."

Communications is seen as a critical function in combat and must be kept as precise and clean as possible so that misunderstandings and missing facts are kept to a minimum. Working with allies who are not English speakers can make that task more difficult.

In the 2003 strafing by the A-10s, the pilots could clearly see armor proceeding below them; however they were left largely to their own discretion to decide if the unidentified vehicles were Iraqi.

The United States has taken steps to improve the scope of information available to pilots by providing real-time video links that allow forward air controllers, the people on the ground who call in bomb runs on ground targets, to see literally what the pilot sees rather than relying on a verbal description of a potential target coming from a pilot who is trying to talk and fly at the same time.

A particularly useful system is called ROVER. Developed by L-3 Communications, ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) is something like the electronic illustrators television commentators use during football games.

Controllers can draw arrows or circles on their screens that appear on the cockpit screen, ensuring that pilot and air controller are talking about the same thing when they are making plans to release a 1,000-pound bomb in an area where civilians and friendly troops are also present. The 12-pound unit works on a wireless signal, which allows it to be used inside a vehicle or by a unit on foot lurking behind a rock.

"It's like talking on the telephone," Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Harbin, of the 609th Combat Operations Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., said during a demonstration of ROVER for the media late last year. "We see what the pilots see."

ROVER might have changed the outcome of the A-10 strafing run in the 2003 if the ground controllers had seen what the pilots were seeing.

Source: United Press International

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