- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

The commander of two Air Force pilots who face charges in a "friendly fire" bombing said his men acted properly and that he had been unable to locate where allied troops were operating during the Afghanistan war.
"The problem I see with this is we have friendly aircraft in a war zone that is unknown as to where the bad guys are and where the good guys are," said Col. David C. Nichols, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Group.
Col. Nichols' comments were made during tape-recorded questioning of the two pilots minutes after they returned to their Kuwaiti base from a 10-hour mission to Afghanistan. A copy of the transcript was obtained by The Washington Times.
"There is a piece of that, that could be known," Col. Nichols said as he wrapped up questioning of Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach last April at al Jaber air base in Kuwait. "We could know where the good guys are. Our guys in the airplane, our guys providing command and control for the guys in our airplanes, should have absolute confirmation where friendlies are at all times.
"We have been doing this mission since the 16 October. And that has been a stated, ongoing problem from the beginning, not knowing where the friendly locations are."
Col. Nichols will be a key defense witness in what the military calls an Article 32 hearing, which begins Monday at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The Air Force has charged both Maj. Umbach and Maj. Schmidt with manslaughter after they mistakenly bombed a live-fire exercise near Kandahar, killing four Canadian soldiers.
The pilots say they fired in self-defense, thinking the upward flashes of fire were directed at their single-engine F-16s.
But the Air Force says they violated the rules of engagement by not first positively identifying the flashes' source. The service went to the extraordinary step of charging the two with offenses that could bring more than 60 years in prison.
After the Article 32 hearing, Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, who commands the 8th Air Force headquartered at Barksdale, will decide whether to order a court-martial, pursue administrative punishment or drop the charges. The military judge presiding over the evidentiary hearing will make recommendations based on the testimony of Col. Nichols and other witnesses.
From the time Majs. Schmidt and Umbach landed at al Jaber, they said insisted they had fired in self-defense, according to the transcript.
"My release was mostly in regards to the continual firing in the direction of [Maj. Umbach]," says Maj. Schmidt.
"Looked liked [multiple-launch rocket system] or BM-21 shooting. You know, who knows what kind of weapon it was at the time." BM-21 is a Chinese-made system of mobile rockets.
Col. Nichols agrees: "So absolutely. I mean, you felt he was threatened and if you weren't going to do something he was going to get schwacked out of the sky. "
Maj. Umbach later says, "The location from the airport seemed to be where in the past they've [said] the enemy fire has been. I didn't see anybody retaliating on the ground. It did not appear as a ground battle. It appeared as a site shooting at me and my wingman."
After listening to a tape of radio communications between the pilots and the crew of an AWACS control aircraft, which also was unaware of the Canadian exercise that night, Lt. Col. Mark Coan, the acting deputy group commander, supported the pilots' decisions.
"The air crew felt like they were threatened and they acted accordingly and made the radio calls that they should have made."

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