A sandstorm was blowing so fiercely across the Iraqi desert that it was hard to see or even stand upright. A Humvee driver, delivering a flight crew to a helicopter gunship, struggled to steer by compass heading. As the vehicle approached the Apache AH-64, 60-mile-an-hour winds blasted the cockpit windows with grit. Once inside, the two-man crew spun up the chopper’s turbine engines and, at ten minutes past midnight, prepared to lift off. Up front in the gunner’s seat, with the best view of the battlefield and his pilot seated behind him, was Ralph Hayles, a battalion commander with seventeen years of flight experience. He had misgivings about this mission, and not only because of the weather.

It was February 1991, days before the start of the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm. Somewhere in the turbulent darkness, U.S. Army scouts had spotted what they believed were Iraqi tanks. The scouts were the leading edge of a massive American military presence poised against the Iraqi army occupying Kuwait. The U.S. forces were armed with the newest Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles with advanced thermal imaging and laser range finders. But their crews lacked experience maneuvering in the featureless desert, and their powerful guns could shoot beyond the range of their high-tech targeting systems. Gunners and helicopter pilots, peering into tiny scopes, were mistaking friendly forces for the enemy. The problem wasn’t confined to ground combat: seven Marines had been killed by a U.S. jet a few weeks earlier. Even Hayles had narrowly escaped disaster on a recent mission, when an American Bradley misidentified Hayles’s aircraft and fired cannon rounds that whizzed past his cockpit. One of Hayles’s crew had mistakenly launched a Hellfire missile at a target in broad daylight that turned out to be a Bradley; luckily, the missile misfired and disappeared over the horizon.

It was war, and that meant chaos. Hayles, a 42-year-old lieutenant colonel who led a battalion of eighteen attack helicopters and used the call sign “Gunfighter Six,” knew it. But he was an ambitious Texan from Corpus Christi whose attention to detail, hard work, and towering self-confidence had made him one of the Army’s rising stars. He had argued against this combat mission because of the weather and a heightened risk of friendly fire. He’d been overruled. Now he was taking charge of the flight himself because he thought nobody else could. Even if he hadn’t slept for thirty hours. Behind him, the pilot gave the Apache full power, but rather than floating gently into a hover, the helicopter, slammed by gale-force winds, surged 150 feet into the black sky, jostling the sixteen supersonic missiles slung beneath its stubby wings.

Inside the bucking helicopter, Hayles was peering at a computer screen barely larger than a credit card. It displayed the view picked up by his infrared radar, a tiny piece of the battlefield that Hayles later compared to looking through a soda straw. The screen also displayed several lines of six numbers, each describing the map grid coordinates of targets identified by U.S. ground troops. One set of digits, 915270, had been relayed to Hayles as the location of hostile forces before he took off that night. Staring in what he thought was that direction, Hayles saw two fuzzy rectangular images on the screen well north of a defensive line of U.S. Army vehicles. Those two must be, he reasoned, the vehicles he’d been directed to destroy. Unbeknownst to Hayles, however, his helicopter had turned and drifted in the wrong direction. He was not looking north, but northeast. The indistinct rectangles on Hayles’s screen were located more than two miles away from the coordinates he’d been given.

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Ralph Hayles and his helicopter pilot, Larry LeBlanc, at Fort Hood in May 1990.Courtesy of LTC (Ret) Ralph Hayles

Struggling against his lack of sleep, the whipping tailwind, and a computer glitch that had the helicopter’s missile detector screaming that enemy radar had locked onto his aircraft, Hayles centered his crosshairs on the vehicles. The ground commander yelled over the radio, “Those are enemy—go ahead and take them out!” Hayles, sensing that something was wrong, hesitated, but with his back seat pilot urging him on—“Now do the motherf—s!”—he fired. Two Hellfire missiles leaped off the rails, and seconds later, Corporal Jeffrey Middleton and Private Robert D. Talley, crew members on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, were killed, while six other Americans in a nearby armored personnel carrier were injured.

Within minutes, Hayles’s headquarters radioed the cockpit: “[Friendlies] reporting maybe friendly vehicles may have been hit.” Shaken, Hayles asked for permission to return to base. Negative, he was told by his brigade commander. “Remain on station. Those things are going to happen.” Medics were already racing to the scene, even as some ground commanders initially assumed the vehicles might have been shot by Iraqi soldiers. But Hayles, still hovering miles away, insisted he was at fault. “I got two vehicles on fire over there, where there’s—that I hit. They’re burning, and the ammunition on board is blowing up,” he said in a crisp, just-the-facts, South Texas tone that camouflaged his shock and horror. “I destroyed two vehicles . . . and they were both friendly vehicles.”

Soon after he returned to base, Hayles was stripped of his command and marched away to a tent designated for war prisoners. There, he sat in shame, awaiting his flight home. The images of those two burning vehicles flared over and over in his mind.

“Bullheaded.” That’s how one friend of Hayles’s describes him, and it pretty much captures how he’s navigated the world ever since that night in the desert. This is a story of a Texas soldier’s determination, of pushing past setbacks and defeats. It’s one perhaps of atonement, of yearning for a moral rebalance of lives wrecked by a moment’s confusion. It’s a story of the awful combat curse of friendly fire, the astonishingly common instances of soldiers mistakenly killing comrades in battle. It’s a story of the U.S. military, with immense resources and technical expertise at hand, being unable or unwilling to effectively address the problem. It’s a story of Ralph Hayles persisting, in bullheaded fashion, long after most others would have surrendered.

That stubborn streak served Hayles well after the incident, when the Army broke tradition by identifying him as the killer of two American soldiers, exposing him to harsh media scrutiny. It took him six months to formalize his retirement and secure his pension, fighting against those in the Army who sought severe punishment.

“With me, it’s personal,” Hayles said to me one sweltering morning last August. He was rifling through blueprints and drawings in the second-floor study of his San Antonio town house. He is 71 years old and heavyset. He talks quickly, the words tumbling over one another and occasionally punctuated by a deep, rumbling laugh. His Gunfighter Six flight suit is long since packed away. No keepsakes from his Army career decorate his walls. He is not sentimental, but he is fiercely passionate in this regard: friendly fire, he insists, has a clear, technical solution. The military just needs to act on it.

Shortly after he returned home in 1991, Hayles began working on a simple, inexpensive combat identification device he called “Flashlight.” Using the engineering basics he’d learned in college and the hands-on expertise he’d honed during his Army years, he was able to create a mock-up of the system. It would identify, for would-be shooters, the type of friendly vehicle or aircraft in their gunsights by company, battalion, division, and so on. Later models would even identify individuals. That’s no longer just a fuzzy blob on the target screen; that’s a unit of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Distance from you to them: 650 meters. If this combat ID system had been installed in Hayles’s helicopter thirty years ago, he now believes he could have known that those two images on his radar were not enemy targets. And he could have known that the figure standing on one of the vehicles was Corporal Jeffrey Middleton.

Hayles didn’t dare go near the wreckage that night. Reflecting on the accident, he said that avoiding the aftermath helped ease the post-traumatic stress he experienced while beginning a new life. “I didn’t fly up and land by all that death and destruction those missiles caused,” Hayles told me. “If I had seen what was left of those two soldiers, I’d have had a lot more problems.”

Instead, with the single-mindedness that had powered his Army career, Hayles focused on the practical. Friendly fire became the enemy, and developing the technology to prevent it became his mission. “I didn’t put a gun to my head,” he said. “I went forward.”

Within months of his return from the war, Hayles had settled on an early design of his new technology to reduce friendly fire. Each shooter’s weapon would be outfitted with a wristwatch-size device that emitted a narrow radio beam. Likewise, each friendly vehicle or individual could be equipped with a receptor capable of flashing back its identification in a secure, encrypted exchange in less than a second. The system would work on a low frequency, 13.5 gigahertz, enabling it to penetrate dust, smoke, rain, bushes, trees, and even walls. It would need to be energy-efficient enough to avoid the use of heavy batteries. Hayles worked out a detailed proposal and took it to the Army in 1992. It was the start of a decades-long crusade.

In the nineties, friendly fire became a public relations concern for the military. Thirty-five American soldiers, almost 1 in 4 of those killed during Desert Storm, died by friendly fire; 72 were wounded in those exchanges. Three quarters of all American Abrams tanks and Bradley  Fighting Vehicles  destroyed or damaged in the war were taken down by friendly fire. In one incident, a week after Hayles was relieved of his command, 6 U.S. soldiers were killed and 25 were wounded when two clusters of American armored vehicles began shooting at each other.

The mistaken killing of combat allies has afflicted military forces for as long as humans have been fighting wars. In the 413 BC battle of Epipolae, during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian army launched a nighttime assault on Syracusan forces, relying on code words to identify one another in the dark. It didn’t work. Syracusan troops overheard the password and began shouting it themselves. Mayhem ensued, with scores of Athenian soldiers killing one another.

In Colonial America, no less a warrior than George Washington was involved in a friendly fire incident. In 1758, during the French and Indian War, Washington, then an officer in the British army, led a detachment of infantry to seize a hill near present-day Latrobe, Pennsylvania, from French troops. The enemy fled as dusk fell, but a second British detachment stormed up the other side of the hill. In the ensuing skirmish, between thirteen and forty British and colonial soldiers were killed. Later, during the Civil War, Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was mistakenly shot by his own men outside Chancellorsville, Virginia, in 1863, with the resulting injuries contributing to his death a few weeks later.

During the 1944 invasion of France, Allied aircraft had stripes painted on the top and bottom of their wings for positive identification by friendly forces. Sadly, the Allies’ ground forces lacked similar protective markings. In one incident, American bombers struck friendly troops in Normandy, wounding 490 U.S. service members and killing 111 others. Among the dead was Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, the highest-ranking American soldier to die in World War II.

The recurrence of friendly fire incidents over the past century of American warfare, from World War II to the Vietnam War to today’s ongoing “forever war” in Afghanistan, should have come as no surprise to the Army. At the National Training Center, in Fort Irwin, California, controllers had been tracking every simulated shot fired by individuals, vehicles, and aircraft in intensive war games. In the years of mock combat preceding Desert Storm, a quarter of all shots fired during deliberate attacks struck friendly forces.

But Big Army—the bureaucratic network of commands and directorates and fiefdoms, and the old bulls who preside over it—has long been skeptical of efforts to reduce friendly fire. As General Gordon Sullivan, a tank commander and Army chief of staff, told an interviewer in 1993, “Friendly fire has always been with us . . . we cannot fix it in any kind of absolute sense.” A year later, two U.S. fighter jets misidentified and fired at two American helicopters over northern Iraq, shooting both down and killing all 26 passengers.

So, when Hayles presented his preliminary design for Flashlight, Big Army—true to form—decided not to implement it. The Army spent a few years attempting to develop other technologies but never fielded a comparable system to address friendly fire. With Flashlight stalled, Hayles tried to move on. He worked as a stockbroker, then founded and codirected the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Clemson University, in South Carolina. He made a good living as a management trainer. But his heart and mind remained stuck on the problem of friendly fire. Hayles was convinced he had the answer and that another war would needlessly kill more Americans. On that point he was relentless—he told nearly everyone he met about it. “I took quite a bit of abuse for it,” he told me with a throaty chuckle.

Hayles’s prediction was correct. As American fighters swarmed into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, friendly fire incidents proliferated. In late 2001, a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan killed three American Special Forces soldiers, injuring and nearly killing Hamid Karzai, who had recently returned from exile to be installed as Afghanistan’s next president. Several weeks later, in 2002, an American gunship mistakenly strafed a convoy in Afghanistan, killing a U.S. Special Forces soldier. That same year, a U.S. fighter jet killed four Canadian soldiers with a laser-guided bomb. In March 2003, two U.S. “Warthog” attack planes responded to a call for help from a Marine company pinned down by Iraqi fire. In two passes, the jets killed several Marines they were supposed to help with missiles and gunfire.

Later that year, while covering military issues for a newspaper chain, I asked then–defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld why the Pentagon couldn’t solve the problem. Friendly fire “is always heartbreaking,” he told me. But, he added, “I’ve not heard nor seen anybody who has seen a pattern that’s correctable. . . . It’s just the way life is, I suppose. . . . People get hurt. It’s a shame.”

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An Army sergeant testing the Flashlight prototype at Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, in 2012.Courtesy of LTC (Ret) Ralph Hayles

Deep in the military’s bureaucracy, however, someone had taken an interest in Flashlight. One day in 2003, Hayles received a call from the U.S. Joint Forces Command, the group responsible for updating military technology. Could his idea help reduce friendly fire casualties? Hayles dusted off his designs and took them to the San Antonio–based Southwest Research Institute, one of the nation’s premier engineering nonprofits. He began working with Jim Moryl, the institute’s director of radio frequency sensors and systems. Moryl had been instrumental in developing the technology used in the military’s Blue Force Tracker, which allows commanders to follow the movement of American vehicles on the battlefield. With mounting excitement, Hayles and Moryl got to work building functional models of Flashlight, including a miniaturized version that would identify individuals by name.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued without an effective U.S. combat ID system to protect troops. Among the fixes the military tried were cloth rooftop panels for vehicles and individual infrared blinking lights, both visible at night only to those wearing night vision goggles. (Pentagon leaders were betting that the opposing forces wouldn’t also acquire night vision technology. They were wrong: Taliban fighters did obtain night vision devices, stolen or bought from Afghan troops or purchased on the black market.)

While embedded with Marines in Afghanistan in 2008, I felt safer wearing a blinker on night missions in Helmand Province, but tragic episodes years later would suggest that my sense of security had been misplaced. In 2014 a U.S. bomber dropped two 500-pound bombs on American soldiers during a night operation in southern Afghanistan. The soldiers were wearing infrared blinkers, but the bomber’s targeting system wasn’t equipped to see infrared, and the crew concluded that the blips on its radar were enemy forces. Twelve thousand feet below, five Americans and an Afghan sergeant were blown to bits.

Until you take a closer look at Ralph Hayles’s life, it’s unclear why a former helicopter commander from Corpus Christi would believe that only he can stop friendly fire. And Hayles, for all of his professional success, does not have the
track record of a brilliant inventor. Growing up, he was an average student but an outstanding athlete who won a baseball scholarship to Trinity University, in San Antonio. There, he studied engineering for two years before his struggles with advanced calculus convinced him to switch to a major in business. He excelled in the ROTC and became a distinguished military graduate in 1971. After college, Hayles joined the Army and went off to become an officer. Promotions came quickly, and his career charted a steady climb for twenty years, until that awful night in Iraq.

Hayles bristles at the notion that he doesn’t have the engineering credentials to invent a technical solution to friendly fire. “I have the real-world experience of making tanks run, attack helicopters run,” he told me. “The Army sent me to the Pentagon, where I worked with engineers at Bell helicopters to put missiles and a machine gun on this little unarmed scout helo, and in nine months the first Kiowa Warrior armed helicopter appeared.” He cited years of experience working with technical systems aboard tanks and helicopters and three years of field-testing new ways to organize attack helicopter units.

In addition to his combat experience and his consulting on weapons design, Hayles’s confidence in Flashlight was undergirded by his trust in a unique gizmo that elevated his friendly fire remedy above the rest. The Luneburg lens, named after German inventor and mathematician Rudolf Luneburg, is a spherical antenna capable of creating a powerful, narrow, and steerable beam of radio energy. Hayles’s design called for a two-inch Luneburg lens that was meant to increase the range, accuracy, and durability of Flashlight’s radio signal. The components of Flashlight would fit comfortably in a tank or helicopter and could even be scaled down and attached to an infantry rifle.

One advantage Hayles believed his model had over combat identification systems being developed by large defense contractors was that Flashlight could emit and detect lower-frequency radio signals. While rival devices operated at or above frequencies of 38 gigahertz, Flashlight ran at 13.5 gigahertz, a frequency that helped make its waves better at passing through trees and walls and less likely to scatter in rain and fog. Flashlight would also have been cheaper, Hayles said. But the military preferred the higher frequency, which some experts said would be more difficult for the enemy to intercept.

To Hayles, Flashlight was the superior product. Compared to higher-frequency designs, his model cast a wider beam that would allow soldiers to identify multiple targets in an area. Competing systems, with narrower beams capable of identifying only one vehicle at a time, did little to reduce the risk of launching a tank round or missile at a single enemy target that would also destroy nearby friendly forces outside the shooter’s view. Marginally slower than the Army’s preferred 38-gigahertz models, Flashlight was also safer, Hayles argued, because it could help Americans sort out, in the chaos of combat, what they were looking at. “The Army was trying to speed up” the decision to shoot, Hayles said. “I was trying to slow it down.” He added, “I wanted it to be safer.”

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Hayles with a Luneburg lens prototype at his home in San Antonio on January 14, 2021.Photograph by Josh Huskin

At Southwest Research, Hayles and Moryl did all they could to prepare Flashlight for use on the battlefield. They built prototypes. They made presentations to congressional defense committees and at military headquarters across the country. They eventually won the backing of two influential Texans, Senator John Cornyn and Representative Kay Granger, who both sponsored a series of congressional earmarks in 2008 that were worth $12.1 million for research and development. The funds were enough to build seven working models, which the Army agreed to test at its Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland. Despite a few technical glitches, the devices worked: a standing soldier using Flashlight identified another soldier lying in the grass three miles away. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince the Army to stray from its preference for a higher-frequency combat ID system. The Army sent Flashlight into storage at the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base, outside Tampa, Florida.

The following year, fate delivered the final blow to Hayles’s technology. The 2011 Budget Control Act sliced $1 trillion from projected defense spending over the next decade. In the resulting scramble over defense dollars, programs like Flashlight, which lacked the backing of major corporate sponsors and lobbyists, were axed. In 2013 Hayles and Moryl made one last push, when the Army, which still had no fix for friendly fire, issued an industry-wide call for “advanced and/or novel Combat Identification technologies.” Hayles and Moryl sent a detailed proposal, but they never heard back. Hayles attributed the snub to the Army’s stubborn pursuit of an effective 38-gigahertz combat ID system.

“I gotta give ’em credit for trying,” he said. “They spent about a billion dollars, and the thing wouldn’t work with [individual] soldiers. We told the Army, ‘Swap out the antennas you’re using and use our antennas at 13.5 gigahertz, and the problem is solved!’ and the Army wouldn’t do it. I have the makings of a really fine system, but it’s sitting in pieces at SOCOM, in Florida. I got nothing to show anybody, but the government paid for it, so the government could take it from us, and they did. So we’re done.”

Hayles believes that Flashlight’s progress within Army circles ultimately came down to the twenty-year-old stigma of his error in Desert Storm. “I’d like to think it wasn’t personal,” he told me. But, he added, “Any time you went to a meeting, people’d say, ‘You’re not at thirty-eight gigahertz. Go away!’ And you could see it on their faces: ‘You’re the guy who shot those soldiers. Get outta the room!’ ”

By the time we met in San Antonio in the summer of 2019, Hayles insisted he was done trying to convince the military. “The deal is they don’t want to do it—or they would have,” he said sourly.

Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers kept dying and suffering injuries in friendly fire incidents. Among those that became publicly known: Two Americans were killed in Iraq by tank fire in 2007. A few years later, a Marine and a Navy medic died in a U.S. drone attack. In 2011 U.S. tank fire killed another Marine.

Even with American involvement in active military campaigns scaling back in recent years, the problem has endured. In 2019 the Pentagon acknowledged that a Delta Force commando had been killed in Syria by friendly fire rather than by an improvised explosive device, as initially reported.

The Department of Defense does not routinely report friendly fire casualties. In one infamous case, the 2004 death of former NFL defensive back Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, the military attempted a cover-up. In its public casualty statistics, the Pentagon does not list deaths by friendly fire separately from deaths by hostile fire, so the true extent of the problem is hidden. The Army’s own research suggests that the proportion of U.S. battle deaths caused by friendly fire was 23 percent in Desert Storm, between 13 and 20 percent in Vietnam (even at 13 percent, the death toll would have been at least 7,569), 13 to 16 percent in World War II, and 10 percent in World War I. Whatever the true numbers, these incidents “often have a devastating effect on troop morale and the confidence of ground combat forces in their supporting air, artillery, and armored forces,” an Army study acknowledged.

Meanwhile, defense department work on combat ID has morphed into costly attempts to develop battlefield artificial intelligence capabilities linked to remote-sensing and long-range fire-control systems. Raytheon Technologies, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, has worked on combat ID systems for more than a decade, with no widely fielded systems to show for it. (A spokesperson for Raytheon declined to comment for this story.)

But Army forecasts suggest future conflicts will increase opportunities for combat killings of Americans by Americans. If war comes, it will likely be fought in congested cities and across battlefields potentially contaminated by chemical and biological weapons. Fighting will be increasingly fast, intense, chaotic, and deadly. Combatants will clash through unlit high-rises and sewers, in demanding environments where the precise and constant identification of friend and foe could prevent multitudes of unnecessary injuries and deaths.

It’s not that the Army doesn’t want to solve the problem. No one I’ve interviewed over 35 years on the military beat has suggested that needless American combat deaths are acceptable. They just haven’t found the right solution, senior officers say. Why not? One possible explanation is that the military’s focus remains on killing, while safety is a lower priority. Thus, the incentive is to invest in more powerful and accurate weapons, and that’s where the defense spending goes. Another is that the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget gets gobbled up by multibillion-dollar contracts with a handful of the biggest defense firms; lobbyists and politicians eager for home-district jobs make sure of it. Those at risk of friendly fire have no such champions at the Pentagon or in Congress. Some suggest that although friendly fire deaths are tragic, the problem is not big enough and its solution not lucrative enough to attract an all-out, spare-no-expense campaign like the Pentagon’s efforts to stem the killing of Americans by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hayles recalled a senior Army official who once told him friendly fire hadn’t been solved yet because the military had more urgent priorities. “I like to have fainted,” Hayles said. “He wasn’t being mean about it, just telling it how it was.”

But it wasn’t just the big defense contractors Hayles was pitted against. It was the military’s conservative manner of acquiring new weapons, which tends to prioritize updating existing technology over innovation. The B-52 bomber, to take an extreme example, was designed in the late forties, first flew in the early fifties, and, thanks to regular improvements, is still flying today. Today’s frontline Abrams tank has been constantly upgraded since it first appeared in 1980. So has the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, over its forty-plus years of existence. The Navy’s new Ford-class aircraft carriers have a planned life span of fifty years. Against this kind of slow-rolling weapons development, proposals like Flashlight “just bounce off the system,” an insider told me.

The official in charge of modernizing the Army made much the same point. General John M. Murray leads the Army Futures Command, set up in Austin two years ago to accelerate the fielding of new technology and specifically to attract innovative ideas from sources besides the big defense contractors. I asked him to explain the Army’s history of fiddling with friendly fire solutions without producing tangible improvements. “We’re working on some solutions that will help answer the problem,” Murray insisted. He was referring to a joint initiative between the Army and Microsoft, a $2.4 billion project to outfit soldiers with goggles equipped with digitized “thermal and low-light sensors . . . rapid target acquisition, aided target identification and augmented reality,” according to an Army press release. Lieutenant Colonel Brad Winn, who manages the program, said the goggles will display dots representing the locations of friendly soldiers, but they will not provide information such as name and rank.

Murray also explained why the Army seems immune to outsiders like Hayles barging in with notions that run contrary to long-held assumptions. “Once we start something, we don’t like disruption or change,” he said. “When it comes to how we acquire matériel, we tend to be very bureaucratic, very resistant to change.”

Upstairs in his study one day in 2018, Hayles was idly doodling on a sheet of paper. On his desk sat a softball-size version of the Luneburg lens, the heart of Flashlight. He’d been following the race to develop 5G technology and cellphone networks, and in his mind, the gears were turning: mobile connectivity . . . towers . . . antennas . . . Luneburg lens.

Suddenly, he sat up straight. “We could use the same technology from Flashlight to miniaturize cellphone tower antennas, carry more data over longer distances,” he said. In short order, he applied for and received two provisional patents for what he now calls MSCAT, short for Miniaturized Super Capacity Antenna Technology. He took his sketches to Moryl at Southwest Research, and the two shook hands on a research and development effort to produce a working model.

Hayles sees a touch of destiny in his path: from waiting in the prisoners’ tent hours after firing the missiles that killed two Americans in 1991, to the years he spent refining his combat ID system, to reimagining how Flashlight could blossom into a new 5G project. If Hayles’s vision leads to a significant expansion in the nation’s 5G capability, it would be a technical triumph—and hugely enriching. “He’s not entirely altruistic in this,” a colleague observed. More than money, however, it seems that Hayles yearns for validation, a legacy defined not by his fatal mistake in the desert but by his breakthrough work since. For the man who was once Gunfighter Six, all the long nights spent obsessing over technical solutions to friendly fire, the tinkering with prototypes and recalculating of radio frequencies, the endless struggles with Army bureaucracy—all of it will feel justified if his 5G idea pays off.

But it’s not clear that Hayles and his new enterprise, the American Antenna Company, can squeeze into the mobile network business. For well over a year, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have been adding to their 5G networks the same low-frequency spectrum that Hayles has championed. And the major telecoms are increasingly using antennas that can digitally steer multiple beams, which they say is an advantage over Hayles’s single-focus Luneburg lens model. Hayles’s concept is a good one, an outside expert said, but not good enough to convince the telecoms to set aside what they’ve already got.

But Hayles is undaunted. “With my antenna, I can get more distance and better performance,” he told me. “Sooner or later, somebody will screw up and start putting my antenna up, and all of a sudden, customers are happier and costs are less.” Hayles is convinced his network design simply outperforms the alternatives. And once that becomes apparent, he hopes, even the military will recognize the value of Flashlight. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Off Target.” Subscribe today.