HC Deb 24 July 1991 vol 195 cc704-7W
Mr. Oppenheim

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the results of his investigations into friendly fire incidents involving British troops in the Gulf.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

There were four incidents during the Gulf conflict in which British soldiers were killed or injured by friendly forces. Nine soldiers were killed and 16 injured in these incidents. The board of inquiry into the incident when nine soldiers were killed and 11 injured in two Warrior vehicles belonging to the 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Battle Group (3 RRF) has now reported. It has been the practice of successive Governments not to publish reports of this kind, but I wish to give as full an account as possible of the board's findings.

On 26 February 1991, 3 RRF had fought their way through a number of enemy positions in southern Iraq. After a brief but intense sandstorm during the early part of the advance, the weather had improved to give clear skies and good visibility by about 1500 hours local time, when C Company 3RRF, with some 37 Warrior and Engineer vehicles, was reorganising. The terrain in the area was flat and featureless apart from some Iraqi defensive positions and abandoned vehicles and equipment. During the reorganisation, Royal Engineers prepared to destroy nearby Iraqi artillery pieces. When the demolition charges were about to be blown, C Company commander instructed his men to re-enter their vehicles, close hatches and move away from the gun emplacements.

8 Platoon had been stationary and out of their vehicles for about 15 minutes before this order was given. As they started to comply, one Warrior, callsign 22, exploded. Another Warrior, callsign 23, immediately manoeuvred in front of callsign 22, and some crew members had just begun to move the casualties to the first aid post when callsign 23 also exploded. A-10 aircraft were seen in the area at the time of the explosions, but at first mines were suspected.

Earlier during the day, two successive flights of United States Air Force (USAF) aircraft were tasked by Headquarters 1st (British) Armoured Division to attack Iraqi armour at grid reference PT6857. Subsequently, a further flight of two USAF A-10 aircraft reported for tasking to the British assistant divisional air liaison officer (DALO). His intention was that these aircraft should attack the same target as the two previous flights but there is a conflict of evidence over whether a grid reference for the target was passed from the assistant DALO to the A-10s. The target location was over 20 km to the east of C Company 3 RRF's position at 1500 hours.

The A-10 pilots identified what they thought was the target area from a physical description given them by a departing USAF F-16 of the previous flight, and shortly afterwards saw what they thought were about 50 Iraqi T54/55 tanks and support vehicles heading north. The pilots had been told that there were no friendly forces within 10 km of their target, and these vehicles were closer than that to the point they had identified as their target. The lead aircraft made two passes, at 15,000 and 8,000 ft, to observe the vehicles with binoculars, but saw no friendly markings. Both aircraft then fired one infra-red Maverick missile from a height of about 9,000 ft, each destroying one of the vehicles, before reporting the engagement to the assistant DALO and leaving the area.

The pilots' report of 50 Iraqi vehicles differed so dramatically from earlier descriptions of the target that the assistant DALO asked them to confirm the location. The flight leader reported that the attack had taken place at grid reference PT 418518. The assistant DALO immediately realised that this position was more then 20 km from the intended target and corresponded with the location of 3 RRF. He then called up a reconnaissance flight over the area, which reported that fluorescent air recognition panels could be seen from 6,000 ft and the type of vehicles could be identified from 14,000 ft.

The board of inquiry found that 8 Platoon, C Company 3 RRF were on operations as ordered. The board also found that the air planning procedures allowing a distance of more than 15 km between the target for any air attack and friendly forces had been followed and should have been sufficient to ensure the successful and safe conduct of operations. The board further concluded that air control at corps and divisional level which provided tasking information to the A-10s was in accordance with established procedures.

The board found that 8 Platoon's vehicles were displaying correct inverted V recognition symbols and fluorescent panels. The board noted that some of the panels could have been partially obscured by open hatches or equipment, and that while a reconnaissance flight observed the panels at 6,000 ft, this was below the operating height of the A-10s. The board could not make any finding as to whether the pilots should have seen the identification panels at their operating height.

The board concluded that no blame or responsibility for the incident could be attributed to 3 RRF.

The board noted that there was a conflict of evidence between the statements of the witnesses from headquarters 1st (British) Armoured Division and those of the A-10 pilots. The assistant DALO stated that he passed the target grid reference but the A-10 pilots deny receiving this. There was no evidence to suggest that the two previous missions had attacked anything but the correct targets. On the evidence presented, the board found that no blame or responsibility should be attached to the assistant DALO.

The pilots stated that, notwithstanding the absence of a grid reference, they attacked on the basis of information passed to them by the previous flight and of their positive identification of the targets as enemy vehicles. The board noted that a USAF reconnaissance flight shortly after the Warriors were attacked was able to identify the types of vehicles from 14,000 ft. On the basis of the evidence before it, the board was unable to establish why the attacked Warrior vehicles were misidentified by the A-10 pilots as enemy T54/55 tanks, particularly in view of their previous identification runs at 8,000 and 15,000 ft. In forwarding the board's findings, the joint commander has drawn attention to the way in which aspect, weather and light conditions can critically affect a pilot's ability to identify the detail of objects on the ground.

The board did not establish whether the USAF personnel involved were at fault. It was clearly established that the USAF A-10s delivered the missiles, but the board could not establish precisely why they attacked the wrong target.

The board remarked that it was clear that all United Kingdom and USAF personnel involved were striving to achieve their individual tasks to the best of their abilities in a fast-moving battle. The board thought it inevitable that, at some stage, difficulties may arise when individuals are under such pressure. On 26 February 1991 difficulties arose in relation to the location and identification of the target, and the board concluded that only the clearest of standard operating procedures and sophisticated identification systems will help to prevent such tragedies in the future.

The board recommended that a study be initiated to identify a suitable air recognition system for future use, confirmed the importance of standard operating procedures for the control of aircraft in offensive air support operations and recommended that they must always include instructions that a grid reference or a latitude and longitude is specifically included in mission briefs and that this is always acknowledged by pilots.

The Government—and the United States Administration—wish to express their deepest sympathy and condolences to the relatives of those who died in this tragic incident.

During the conflict there were a further three incidents involving friendly fire in which British service men were injured.

The first of these occurred shortly after 1100 local time on 26 February. An officer attached to 1 Staffords received shrapnel wounds when a Warrior vehicle was attacked by a Challenger tank of the Scots Dragoon Guards. Personnel from 1 Staffords were guarding prisoners of war when a Challenger tank from the Scots Dragoon Guards began to engage nearby Iraqi armoured vehicles, which later turned out to be abandoned. The tank mistakenly fired on the vehicles of 1 Staffords, hitting the Warrior, before moving off. Visibility at the time was reduced by a dust storm to about 400 m. All the Staffords' vehicles were marked with the inverted V device and carried fluorescent orange panels. The four personnel in the Warrior were unharmed, but shrapnel injured an officer who had dismounted from another vehicle. Once the mistake was realised, the Scots Dragoon Guards returned to the scene and evacuated the officer to hospital.

Another incident occurred shortly before 1100 local time on 27 February. Two personnel from the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars (QRIH) were injured when their Scorpion armoured reconnaissance vehicles were fired on by US M1 Abrams tanks. Both Scorpions were carrying the black inverted V device and visibility was good. United Kingdom and US forces had their own areas of operations and the QRIH reconnaissance section was about 2 km within its area. They had stopped to take the surrender of Iraqi troops, when one Scorpion was hit in the front by a round from a US M1 tank, firing from about 1500 m to the north. The driver escaped without injury, but a soldier walking alongside received shrapnel wounds. The other Scorpion came under tank and machine gun fire, and the soldier manning the turret-mounted machine gun also received shrapnel wounds. When the US personnel realised their mistake they assisted with the treatment of the injured British soldiers and their evacuation to hospital.

The third incident also occurred on 27 February. At about 1445 local time, two soldiers from 10 Air Defence Battery, Royal Artillery received burns when two Spartan armoured vehicles from which they had dismounted were engaged by Challenger tanks from 14/20 Hussars with thermal sights beyond the range of unaided visibility (about 1500 m). In these conditions, it was not possible to identify the inverted V device carried by the vehicles. The rearmost vehicle was hit and burst into flames. The other vehicle was also damaged in the ensuing fire. The Spartan destroyed was empty and was being towed after breaking down. The Spartans had become detached from a convoy of 7th Armoured Brigade vehicles which had been delayed in getting clear of the area because of the difficult terrain.