Friend or foe?

Technology that could protect British soldiers from friendly fire is to be tested in February, but is unlikely to be ready if the UK goes to war with the US against Iraq.

The Soldier Integrated Multifunction Laser System (SIMLAS), originally developed in Switzerland, consists of small lasers mounted on a ‘friendly’ weapon, whether a hand-held rifle or on an aircraft.

These fire a beam prior to the actual shot. If picked up by sensors worn by troops on the same side, the equipment sends a radio signal back to alert the gun. It also doubles as a training system.

Last week a parliamentary public accounts committee condemned the Ministry of Defence’s lacklustre approach to protecting troops from friendly fire. The problem has already accounted for several deaths in the current Afghanistan conflict.

The planned tests of SIMLAS will take place at the Infantry Trials and Development Unit at Warminster. With help from Qinetiq, the army aims to compare the effectiveness of combat identification systems against ‘situational awareness’ technologies that give personnel better information about where other friendlies are.

However, there are already some obvious shortcomings with the system, which will have to be resolved before it can be used in battle. Some soldiers may be reluctant to use a system that might dangerously delay them in real combat. It is also questionable whether they will want to wear and carry SIMLAS, which weighs a couple of kilograms and does not sit well on the SA-80 rifle.

Another stumbling block is NATO. Definitions for the various laser and radio wavelengths that a NATO system would require will only be released next year, meaning that SIMLAS will probably have to be adjusted to match them.

Dr John Pike, international sales manager for Oerlikon Contraves, the company that developed SIMLAS, said funding for future variants of the technology would depend on the NATO decision.

‘As a privately-funded development, there are obviously limits to how far it can be financed until NATO comes off the fence and decides what the future protocols for a universal identification methodology are to be.’

The technology will form part of two separate bids by BAE Systems and Thales for the MoD’s Future Integrated Soldier Technology programme. This is aimed at providing infantry with advanced sensor and network equipment from 2007. But further development will be required to integrate it with other technologies.

Meanwhile the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Thales Missile Electronics is working on a millimetre-wave (33-40GHz) identification system which can question and answer whether a ground vehicle is friendly or not. Millimetre waves were chosen due to their ability to penetrate rain and fog.

Known as – Battlefield Target Identification System (BTID) – it features a steerable interrogator beam. This means that a BTID-equipped tank can survey the battlefield for ‘friendlies’ before its gun is pointed towards a target.

Although the technology has been proven, work continues on improving its reliability and reducing its susceptibility to jamming and vibration, said the international chairman of the combat identification working group, William Suttie at Dstl. However, apart from funding released for another major demonstration next year, there is none left to put it into production.

‘A long-term goal is non-co-operative target recognition,’ said Suttie. With this, the potential target would be identified as a friend, enemy or neutral regardless of whether it carried an identification system itself. Classified work on automatic pattern recognition systems, such as laser vibrometry, is also underway in the UK.