- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Army’s top special operations officer has cleared two Green Berets of wrongdoing in the worst case of “friendly fire” fatalities in the long Afghanistan war.

The deaths of five U.S. soldiers has stirred debate in Washington over the Air Force’s use of strategic B-1B bombers for close air support (CAS) of ground troops. On June 9 a B-1B crew, flying too high to detect signals worn by American forces, dropped two bombs that killed the soldiers and an Afghan sergeant.

The decision by Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, who heads Army Special Operations Command, is tantamount to a rejection of U.S. Central Command’s official investigation as it pertained to his soldiers: Capt. Derrick Anderson, the “A” team commander, and Master Sgt. Travis Zellmann.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, a trained combat pilot and lead investigator, had called for charges against the two Green Berets “if warranted.” Gen. Harrigian listed what he considered their mistakes: lack of mission rehearsal, faulty radios and poor situational awareness.

The Green Berets, from the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, submitted a rebuttal to Gen. Cleveland. They rejected the criticisms and argued that Gen. Harrigian’s report contained glaring inaccuracies.

The two Special Forces soldiers asserted the bombing deaths were solely the fault of a B-1B bomber flight crew and an Air Force ground controller. They also argued the strategic bomber is ill-suited for the complex mission of close air support, which requires pilots to identify “friendlies” and the enemy in crowded combat.

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Gen. Harrigian’s investigation revealed the four crew members showed incompetence in how to conduct CAS as well as in how to use their identification sensors. The Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller who was positioned with the Green Berets relayed inaccurate information to the bomber.

The Air Force has been reviewing whether to discipline the four officers and one enlisted man, who has since left the service.

Gen. Cleveland, a career Green Beret, sided with his men. He notified them Christmas Eve that he will take no adverse action.

“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 general’s public affairs office said in a statement released to The Washington Times.

A spokesman said the two will not face disciplinary action.

The day before the bombing, Capt. Anderson, his “A” team conventional U.S. soldiers and Afghan forces embarked on an enemy clearing operation in the Gaza Valley, Zabul Province. The aim was to rid the area of the Taliban before the presidential runoff election.

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The mission completed by the next night, and in 100-degree heat, the unit prepared for the arrival of Chinook helicopters to take them back to a forward operating base.

The men came under enemy fire. The B-1B arrived and commenced a 5-mile orbit at 12,000 feet. The JTAC called in a strike. Two 500-pound bombs fell directly on the five Americans and one Afghan, who had positioned themselves on a ridge near the landing zone to return fire.

Killed were Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald, Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund, Spec. Justin Helton, Cpl. Justin Clouse and Pvt. Aaron Toppen.

Gen. Harrigian’s investigation uncovered what could be considered a tragic comedy of errors.

The Americans wore infrared strobes to identify them as friendly in night operations. The B-1B crew repeatedly told the JTAC on the ground they could not see the strobes at the point of muzzle flashes on the ridge.

In a bizarre mix-up, the crew was trying to see the strobes through the plane’s high-definition “sniper pod,” which did not have the technical ability to see them.

Even worse, one of the pilots reported he could not see strobes using his night vision goggles, the one system on the plane that could see the signal. The trouble was, at a 5-mile orbit, the plane was too far away — outside of the goggles’ maximum range by about 1,000 meters.

Not seeing any strobes, the pilots figured the men positioned on the ridge must be the enemy and dropped the bombs.

“We never saw a strobe,” a B-1B crew member later said.

At no time during the plane’s circling did the crew apparently ask each other why they were not seeing strobes since they were being told that the Americans were wearing the devices.

Making matters worse, the JTAC encountered repeated problems in radio communications with the B-1B yet had no trouble speaking with other aircraft, such as an AC-130 gunship that arrived shortly before the bombing. Experts say the bomber is not suited for such tactical communication in mountainous terrain that rises as high as 12,000 feet.

The JTAC himself made a critical mistake: He told the bomber the Americans were 300 meters away from the ridge line when they were not.

The Times reported Oct. 29 that the JTAC was told on June 1 he had been selected for involuntary discharge. His career was marked by disciplinary problems. The Times learned that when he was interviewed by investigators, he showed a lack of basic knowledge of targeting procedures for close air support.

The Air Force, against stiff resistance in Congress, is attempting to retire the one plane dedicated to close air support — the storied A-10 Warthog. The Air Force has listed the B-1B as one of its replacements.

The A-10 flies lower than the B-1B, its pilots are schooled in the CAS mission, and they always wear night vision goggles at a distance that can see strobe signals.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a press conference that those five soldiers might be alive today if an A-10 had arrived instead of the B-1B.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican and a committee member, told The Times, “When our ground troops are taking fire from the enemy and call for help, our nation has a responsibility to provide the best possible close air support, and on June 9, 2014, in Afghanistan, our nation failed to do so, and the results were tragic and entirely avoidable.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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