Assisting the rules of engagement

New technology to help U.S. forces distinguish between friend and foe

With a target in his crosshairs, an infantryman only has seconds to decide: Is this person friendly, the enemy or neutral?

Fratricide, or death by friendly fire, is a misfortune of war. The case of Army Ranger Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan has drawn renewed attention to the problem.

Uniforms, signals and codes have been used to avoid these mistakes since people have conducted warfare. Now, new technology could help soldiers potentially avert fatal accidents.

In September, the Joint Forces Command and its allies will test several pieces of technology designed to help warfighters differentiate friendly forces from the enemy. The Coalition Combat Identification technologies will be put through their paces at the Bold Quest demonstration at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Until now, troops have depended on devices such as light beacons and special vehicle panels to identify themselves on the battlefield.

"This technology goes beyond the lights, panels and beacons," said John Miller, operational manager at Coalition Combat Identification's Advance Concepts Technology Demonstration.

"We've focused on technologies used at the point of engagement by shooters," he said, "to help in the final moments of the engagement process as troops engage a target with the highest possible confidence."

The technology has already been tested and shows significant promise. Advance Concepts Technology Demonstrations are designed to look at mature technology and accelerate its availability.

One category that will be tested is cooperative target identification technology. With cooperative technology, friendly forces equip themselves with transponders and devices designed to read the transponders called interrogators.

Using that technology, a gunner on a vehicle could send an interrogation to see if a possible target is friendly. If the potential target has a transponder, the gunner could see that in his sights.

Noncooperative technology is another type to be tested. It does not depend on the query and response ssytem.

Noncooperative technology produces an image of the target by using radar or a laser. Those images are interpreted by a computer, or trained soldier, to determine whether a potential target is the enemy.

During Bold Quest, all the technology will be tested in real-world scenarios.
A Canadian unit, for example, might enter a simulated village to conduct search operations. Both friendly and opposing forces will confront that unit.

"All those forces will get mixed, and they'll use the interrogators at various ranges to sort out who the friends are," Miller said.

Around the time of World War II, it became apparent that technology was needed to identify which airplanes were friendly and not a threat to troops. To meet that need, the Identification Friend or Foe system was developed.

The first generation IFF depended on radar to ping a transponder aboard friendly planes. Aircraft without transponders weren't necessarily the enemy, but the system helped in making the determination.

Although the original technology was not secure, it did lead to more crypto-key enabled systems.

A variety of modes have been developed over the years, including a version used for civilian air traffic control.

"We've been using the existing secure mode, which we call Mode 4, since the '60s and it's fairly well out-of-date," said Scott Wiley, a division manager at Alion Science and Technology Corp., of McLean, Va., which is helping develop a new version called Mode 5.

Making the new mode much more secure than the existing system was one of the top priorities of the program. Another issue is that Mode 4 is unfriendly to other air traffic control systems.

"Mode 5 is very friendly, it causes much less interference problems in air traffic control environments," Wiley said.

The maturing technology will also be a critical piece of the overall push for network-centric warfare, said Sal Costa, director of combat ID products and systems at BAE Systems Inc.

Mark XII/XIIA IFF, the U.S. and international standard for identification of military aircraft and surface ships, is the primary combat ID system for positive identification of friendly military aircraft. That system's commonality with transponders for air traffic control also allows it to include commercial aircraft in the identification process.

The technology "is fully integrated into current and developing net-centric identification and situational awareness systems," Costa said. "Single Integrated Air Picture, the DOD's net-centric approach for developing and maintaining situational awareness of the air domain, uses Mark XII/XIIA IFF as a primary combat ID and target identification system."

Staff writer Doug Beizer can be reached at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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