- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

The Air Force has returned to flight duty the four B-1B crew members who dropped two bombs that killed five U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in June — the deadliest “friendly fire” incident in the long war.

None of the Air Force or Green Beret troops directly involved in the accidental bombing has been relieved of duty or faced criminal charges, despite an investigation that found startling deficiencies.

U.S. Central Command’s official investigation of the incident found that the four fliers — two pilots and two weapons officers — did not realize the bomber’s high-definition targeting — or “SNIPER” — pod wasn’t capable of detecting the infrared strobes worn by the soldiers.

The crew also tried to locate the strobes using a pair of night vision goggles, the only system on the aircraft that could detect the “friendly” signals. But the plane was flying too high, beyond the goggles’ range.

The crew reported to a ground Air Force target spotter that they saw no infrared beacons. It became a false confirmation that the group of men below were the enemy, and the crew dropped two 500-pound, satellite-directed bombs on their fellow Americans.

Sources within Army Special Forces, whose team was in the firefight that night, contend that the sole fault for the incident rests with the B-1B fliers and their lack of training on how their plane’s systems work.

They also blame the Air Force joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), the ground target spotter who relayed a wrong troop position to the B-1B crew. He had asked the crew via radio if they had the ability to see the Americans’ infrared signals, and they answered that they did.

“All four B-1 crew members have completed commander-directed requalification programs and have returned to flying status,” Capt. Andrew Schrag, a spokesman for Air Force Air Combat Command, told The Washington Times.

As for punishment, which included the possibility of criminal charges, Capt. Schrag said Lt. Gen. Tod Wolters, commander of 12th Air Force at the time, relied on his “experienced and operational judgment” and “determined administrative actions were the most appropriate for this situation” for the air crew.

“Administrative actions are a resource available to commanders to correct behavior and rehabilitate and discipline members,” Capt. Schrag said. “These measures include a broad range of actions and documentation, which may be attached to a member’s record.”

On the issue of the crew not knowing the capabilities of the B-1B’s sensors, the spokesman said: “The four crew members underwent extensive retraining that included night vision goggle and SNIPER pod retraining. These retraining programs were tailored to each individual’s needs based upon experience and specific tasks unique to crew positions. All ground testing was re-accomplished, and a final mission check was given to the air crew prior to their return to flying status.”

The Air Force issued a statement in January saying Gen. Wolters determined that the air crew’s “procedural miscues did not directly cause the loss of life in this matter.”

Army special operations sources scoff at that finding, arguing that the crew’s basic lack of knowledge about their aircraft directly led to the fratricide.

The Central Command investigation, led by Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, also faulted the doomed soldiers’ Green Beret team captain and the senior enlisted soldier for a faulty radio, not enough pre-mission rehearsal and a lack of full situational awareness.

The Army decided not to fire them.

It issued a statement in December, saying: “After carefully reviewing all of the information, the Commanding General of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, decided not to relieve the team leader and team sergeant of the Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha that was involved in the June 9th, 2014, friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. However, steps will be taken to significantly reduce the chances of this type of incident from happening again.”

The Air Force JTAC, who mistakenly told the air crew the Americans were a safe distance from the target when they were in fact the target, had a spotty career. He had been demoted from staff sergeant to senior airman for misconduct. He was kicked out of a special unit because he twice called in close air support directly over friendly positions. The Times learned that he showed a lack of basic air controller know-how when he was interviewed by accident investigators.

The JTAC found out before the mission that he would not be retained by the Air Force. The firing resulted in him being separated from the service. He also received what the Air Force called “administrative” actions before he left.

On the night of June 9, the Green Beret-led force of Americans and Afghans had completed a village-clearing operation and came under fire while awaiting extraction helicopters.

The B-1B arrived to perform close air support at 12,000 feet and a 5-mile orbit. It then dropped the two bombs on the Americans positioned on a ridge line.

Killed were Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald, Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund, Spec. Justin Helton, Cpl. Justin Clouse and Pvt. Aaron Toppen. An Afghan army sergeant also died.

The tragedy has been cited in Washington’s debate over the future of the A-10, a storied attack jet designed in the 1970s specifically for close air support.

Former pilots say the deaths never would have happened if a low-flying A-10 Thunderbolt had been dispatched that night, because its pilots know how to use night vision goggles and would have been able to see the “friendly” strobes.

The Air Force, citing tight budgets, is retiring the A-10, which is deployed in the ongoing air war against the Islamic State terrorist army. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, has criticized the Air Force for shutting down A-10 squadrons before providing a dedicated replacement. He says the B-1B strategic bomber is ill-suited for close air support.

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