Electronics on the Wasp and other Navy vessels can now distinguish between civilian and military aerial targets. That is, the ships already have what an international convention might require of all long-range radar-guided missiles.
“There was a lot of soul-searching after the Vincennes incident, a lot of determination this won’t happen again,” says Greg Baker, the captain of the Wasp. The Vincennes killed civilians by mistake; since then, the Navy’s sensor systems have been significantly improved. For example, screens now make civilian aircraft appear visually different from possible hostiles, the innovation that all gunners should have.
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Other military divisions are also making these technological improvements. In February, the Pentagon began installing the Patriot SAM, operated by the Army, in Iraq. William Sharp, a spokesperson for the Army, told me that the ability to display the Mode C “I am a civilian” transponder signal has been added to Patriot batteries. The missiles’ fire-director software is programmed to “interrogate” any target by sending pings that ask friendly military aircraft to respond with an identification code, while requesting civilian aircraft to respond on Mode C. If the latter happens, the Patriot system marks the radar reflection as civilian. Various protocols make it unlikely, though not impossible, that an attacker could trick the Patriot, or Navy SAMs, into thinking it was civilian.
This new technology goes a long way in preventing mistakes, but cooperation at a higher level is needed. Governments should collaborate on an international initiative to require that radar-guided SAMs, and the similar class of anti-ship missiles, incorporate improved technology for sensing and recognizing civilian signals. Any convention should also include non-technological guidelines, such as notices to pilots who are in a war zone, that would help prevent accidents.
One possible model for a pact is the1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which regulates the use of land mines and blinding lasers, among other threats to noncombatants. The agreement is not ironclad. Donald Trump recently said the United States would no longer abide by certain restrictions on land mines.
Nevertheless, the convention is considered a success, as land mines have declined since most nations declared they would renounce such weapons. Forty-one of the 50 nations that a generation ago manufactured land mines have stopped producing them
More informal diplomacy concerning conventional weapons has also been successful and provides a way forward for international cooperation on SAM technology.
In 2002, terrorists near an airport in Mombasa, Kenya, tried to use shoulder-fired rockets called MANPADS to shoot down a civilian airliner. These weapons are easy to hide and relatively inexpensive. “There was a clear sense the situation was out of control and that no nation would benefit, only terrorists,” Matthew Schroeder, a senior researcher for Small Arms Survey, which tracks battlefield armaments, says of MANPADS. So organizations came up with regional agreements “unprecedented in specificity and scope.” Schroeder believes that these pacts reduced the problem considerably. For instance, Russia no longer markets the easily hidden bazooka-style rocket, offering only a mounted version that cannot be removed from a vehicle.