Military aims to minimize fatal mistakes

Illinois National Guard Maj. Harry Schmidt dropped a 500-pound bomb in 2004, targeting what he thought were Taliban anti-aircraft fighters.

He was wrong.

Instead, the bomb killed four Canadian soldiers and injured eight more as they were conducting a night firing exercise at Tarnak Farms, near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

On Thursday, military officials from around the globe discussed ways to make sure similar mistakes don’t happen again.

Representatives from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany and all four branches of the U.S. military traveled to Las Vegas as part of an effort to improve combat identification. Their efforts will focus on technology to assist forces in identifying enemy, friendly or neutral parties on the battlefield.

“People are not alone in the world anymore,” said Air Force Col. Lou Durkac, the air combat command leader for the group hosting the gathering. “You can’t just develop a system that’s only for you. It behooves everyone to look at what we’ve done here.”

The U.S. Joint Forces Command and allies shared their combat identification technologies to assess their effectiveness. The systems will be tested during an operational demonstration called Bold Quest that is taking place at Nellis Air Force Base through Wednesday.

The demonstration allowed the multinational group of military officials to understand what does and doesn’t work and find the gaps in communication between their war zone identification technologies.

“People realize what we are doing here directly benefits the war fighter in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Durkac said.

Countries were given the opportunity to see what types of technologies other countries are using and see whether they could be compatible with a particular country’s system, Durkac said.

More than 850 people are participating in the demonstration.

“The idea is to get people using all the tools,” he said. “Don’t use a hammer for everything; use everything in the box.”

It’s a chance to think outside the proverbial box, said Royal Canadian Army Lt. Col. Peter Nielsen.

“We can work together now as a coalition to do this,” he said. “We have proven concepts that a month ago we only dreamed we’d work out.”

The United States shared new technology at Bold Quest that would enhance the military’s long-range, air-to-ground surveillance system, which is designed to locate, classify and track targets.

New technologies would allow pilots to see an image from the ground in the cockpit. The image would be run through a database to assist in accurate identification of objects in war zones.

For example, the software would help pilots determine from the air whether an object is an enemy tank or a school bus. It would also give a clearer picture of the area around a target, decreasing the chance of collateral damage.

Durkac remembers when a dispatcher asked if he could see a building with a corrugated tin roof as he prepared to bomb a target. For the pilot, looking from miles above, there was no roof or identifiable building; all he could see were three white blobs.

“The leaps in capabilities have been enormous,” Durkac said.

The new U.S. technologies have not yet been given to foreign governments for their use, but the images captured by the equipment are shared with allies, said Maj. Rick Smith, stationed at Hanscom Air Force base in Massachusetts.

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