- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

The Air Force has opened a second investigation into a deadly “friendly fire” bombing in June in Djibouti after an initial probe found that three navigators on a B-52 bomber allowed its cross hairs to mistakenly fix on U.S. Marines below.

“In the final analysis, the mishap was caused by the unacceptable technique of rolling cross hairs onto a friendly position and subsequent failure of the [navigation crew] to accomplish the step of ensuring the cross hairs were on the correct target,” said a confidential Air Force report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times.

“I determined that responsibility for this accident lies squarely and solely with the [bomb-targeting crew],” said the report on the June 22 strike, which killed a U.S. Marine and wounded nine.

The punishment for the three B-52 bomb radar navigators is up to Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, who, his spokeswoman said, has ordered a follow-up investigation. The investigative report prepared by Brig. Gen. Gilmary M. Hostage III was forwarded to Gen. Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Base in Louisiana, for “disciplinary action.”

The case is being closely observed by allies of a pilot involved in another “friendly fire” case in the war on terrorism that is being overseen by Gen. Carlson as the “convening authority.”

The Air Force has moved to court-martial Air National Guard Maj. Harry Schmidt on charges of dereliction of duty.

“We are concerned about the differing treatment by the 8th Air Force between the Schmidt case and the B-52 training accident,” said Charles Gittins, Maj. Schmidt’s attorney. “The B-52 case was a training mission — no combat stress. Maj. Schmidt’s was a combat mission in a combat area in wartime.”

The Air Force quickly moved to lodge criminal charges after Maj. Schmidt dropped a bomb in Afghanistan during the war that mistakenly hit a Canadian live-fire exercise. The strike killed four Canadians and injured eight on a range near Kandahar on April 18, 2002.

Mr. Gittins said his research shows that there have been 17 similar fratricides in the war on terrorism, but his client is the only one to face serious criminal charges.

“Why is a guy who made a mistake in combat being prosecuted while the guys who were on a training mission in the comfort of their air-conditioned B-52 not being prosecuted?” Mr. Gittins said.

“The answer is, it’s a political issue and we’re kowtowing to the Canadians. Because the president screwed up and didn’t apologize fast enough, so they’re punishing Harry,” the lawyer said.

The F-16 pilot could have avoided a criminal trial by pleading guilty at an administrative hearing and quitting the Air Force short of retirement benefits, but he refused.

Maj. Schmidt asserts that he saw flashes of fire at the training site and that he was never pre-briefed on the activity, showing the bombing was an accident, not criminal negligence.

The lawyer pointed out other differences in the cases that would suggest a more lenient treatment for his client.

Maj. Schmidt “didn’t have the luxury of a five-man crew; an instructor standing over his shoulder or the knowledge that he could just do it again if things didn’t look right.”

“The difference in the treatment and the circumstances fairly slaps you in the face when you look closely at the facts,” he said.

The mistaken B-52 bombing in Djibouti, where the Pentagon has set up a counterterrorism task force, killed Marine Capt. Seth Michaud, a helicopter pilot and Naval Academy graduate.

On June 22, the Marines were training in close-air support operations with the B-52 overhead. The Marines pointed a radar beacon at the target; the B-52 homed in on the illumination and was to drop nine bombs.

One of the crew members — the report did not say who, because apparently no crew members talked to the investigator — moved the cross hairs from the Godoria Range targets to the Marines’ position. This was done to judge the distance between the two.

That is when the mistake occurred. None of the three navigators moved the cross hairs back across the scope to the range. The plane then released nine bombs, killing Capt. Michaud and injuring nine.

Gen. Hostage put most blame on two of the three navigators.

“No matter who moved the cross hairs, the other one of them should have seen it and interceded,” the general wrote.

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