A new sensor may provide an all-purpose solution to the vexing and tragic problem of "friendly fire" or "fratricide" -- when troops mistakenly fire upon their own in combat.
Based on a decade of research for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, the New Mexico-based Sandia National Laboratories has developed a high-tech electronic "tag" that can be worn by soldiers, affixed to weapons or tucked inside vehicles.
The device emits an enhanced form of radar that can be recognized and tracked by allies, providing a quick battlefield reference for "boots on the ground."
Dubbed "Athena," the sensor is ready to go, Sandia researcher Lars Wells said.
"It's mature enough to consider as a fratricide and situational awareness solution now, and for the long term," Mr. Wells said Friday.
According to Department of Defense figures, friendly fire historically has accounted for 10 percent to 15 percent of wartime casualties.
In the first seven days of the Iraq war, for example, six soldiers -- or 13 percent -- of the 45 allied fatalities were casualties of friendly fire. Fourteen troops died under hostile fire in the same period. During Operation Desert Storm, 24 percent of the 146 American combat deaths were caused by friendly fire.
The Athena sensor is no mere radio transmitter. Instead, the device creates a kind of "synthetic radar echo," the researchers said, but with an added signature. The tag's echo also includes a small amount of key extra data, which in turn creates a unique, identifying icon on the sweep of a radar screen.
In theory, a pilot overhead or a tank commander on the ground would recognize the blip and simply hold fire.
Prototype models of the Athena are small, ranging in size from a pack of cigarettes to something more along the lines of a kitchen toaster. But they are meant to bring order to the battlefield. Mr. Wells hopes that every soldier eventually will be issued the electronic tag with basic equipment.
"Many times during combat, the military has to pull back from an attack plan because they don't know who is on the ground," he said.
Though the sensor may seem something from "Star Trek," the researchers insist it can be meshed with current systems with no expensive coddling from additional technology.
"By adding tagging to existing radars, we don't need to build new equipment," noted Mike Murphy, who also worked on the project.
"Our industrial partners will be able to drive down the cost quickly so that it is affordable to every Army vehicle and every Air Force jet," he added.
Though government-owned, the Sandia lab is contractor-operated, now part of the Lockheed Martin Corp. But it trails its own heavy-duty history.
Originally called "Z Division," the lab was founded in 1945 as the ordnance design, testing and assembly arm of Los Alamos National Laboratory, which developed the atomic bomb. The lab was run by AT&T for 44 years, and went under Lockheed's management in 1993.
The Athena sensor will be tested by the U.S. Army's Communication Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center in a large-scale troop exercise this fall.