- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Air Force has kicked out the air controller who called in the June 9 airstrike from a B-1B bomber in Afghanistan that killed five American soldiers.

Air Force Air Combat Command in Langley, Virginia, confirmed the action to The Washington Times on Wednesday.

The command said it has grounded the four-member crew of the B-1B Lancer that dropped the two bombs on a target confirmed by radio by a Air Force joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC.

JTACs typically join with Army Green Beret “A” Teams to call in precise airstrikes. The controllers are considered essential when soldiers are involved in close-in fighting and it is difficult for pilots to pick out enemy targets. Controllers use lasers to guide the bombs or provide grid locations, as in the June 9 mistake, that can be programmed into the aircraft’s GPS-guided munitions.

The Air Force said the JTAC in the June 9 bombing had been selected for “involuntary separation” before the incident.

Military officials have told The Times the JTAC had a spotty record and joined the June 9 mission at the last moment.

“As far as the B-1 aircrew are concerned, they have not flown since the incident,” the Air Combat Command told The Times. “Additionally, they will not fly until the appropriate authorities have thoroughly reviewed the facts of the case and made a determination based on a thorough review of the guiding legal precedent and professional military judgment.”

In one of the U.S. military’s worst “friendly fire” tragedies, the JTAC, who the service did not identify, authorized the B-1B Lancer crew to drop bombs on a location he incorrectly reported was 300 meters from the closest friendly troops. In fact, the soldiers were much closer and suffered a near-direct hit.

The military’s investigation said the ground team selected the target “based solely” on the fact that the B-1B crew saw no friendly infrared signals at that spot. In a colossal misunderstanding, the air crew’s “sniper pod” had no technical ability to see the flashes, but the pilots and weapons officers believe it did.

U.S. Central Command released the investigative report last month. Headed by Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the investigation concluded that a string of technical errors and misunderstandings, on the ground and in the bomber, led to the misplaced satellite-guided bombs.

Most striking: The B-1B’s “sniper pod” lacked the capability to detect flashing infrared signals worn by each American to designate them as “friendly” and to distinguish them from the enemy. The doomed soldiers even placed an infrared strobe directly on their equipment, at the center of their position, to make certain the B-1B would see them.

The strike came as an Army Green Beret “A” team and Afghan soldiers had completed a village-to-village clearing operation in Zabul province in preparation for the country’s presidential runoff elections.

Under darkness, the team was about to board Chinook helicopters to take them back to a forward operating base when soldiers came under attack.

A group of soldiers moved to higher ground to confront the Taliban, and the team called in a close-air support strike by the B-1B. The bomber had come on the scene to cover the chopper extraction.

The investigation also was critical of decisions made by the Green Berets.

The bombing killed Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald; Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund; Spec. Justin Helton; Cpl. Justin Clouse; and Pvt. Aaron Toppen. The Afghan battalion commander also died.

The Times asked Air Combat Command why the JTAC and the B-1B crew believed they could detect infrared strobes when they could not.

“That fact is obviously a key driver in how we look at specific adjustments in our TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] and training,” the command said.

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