The “friendly fire” airstrike that killed five American soldiers in Afghanistan on June 9 is the first known case of a battlefield catastrophe that can be linked to automatic defense spending cuts that greatly curtailed prewar training.
A review of the worst American fratricide in the long Afghanistan War also shows that the military’s official investigation faults a Green Beret commander, an Air Force air controller and the four-man crew on the B-1B bomber that conducted the errant strike.
But the investigation, headed by an Air Force general, does not question the use of a strategic bomber for close air support, even though experts say the tragedy illustrates why the big plane is misplaced in that role.
The Washington Times has reviewed the investigation and interviewed knowledgeable sources to compile a picture of the doomed operation in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province, as well as the political and military missteps that precipitated it. Key among them, according to defense experts, was the use of the strategic bomber.
The B-1B’s sheer size required it to fly a wide orbit of five miles for optimum bombing as it made right turns over the nighttime battle site. This put it outside the range of night vision goggles. The goggles were the only equipment the bomber had to identify the infrared strobe lights worn by U.S. troops to distinguish them from the enemy and to keep them safe.
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The pilot, looking out the right window, tried to see infrared flashes, apparently unaware that he was too far away. He reported to the ground controller that he saw no infrared strobes, which became confirmation that the U.S. troops were the enemy.
This misuse of night vision goggles directly led to the crew dropping two 500-pound bombs on five U.S. soldiers, two Green Berets and three accompanying soldiers.
Some had warned this might happen. Several lawmakers, including Senate Armed Services Committee members Kelly Ayotte and John McCain, have criticized the Air Force for its decision last year to retire all A-10 Warthogs, the only aircraft devoted to close air support and a weapon loved by the infantry. Mr. McCain became incensed when he learned one of the A-10 replacements was the B-1B, saying the wide-winged aircraft was totally unsuited for close air support’s requirement to sort out friendlies from the enemy in crowded combat.
In addition, The Times review found that the Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), a critical player who made a major miscalculation that night, had a checkered career.
Upon arriving June 1 in Afghanistan, he had been told before the operation that he had been selected for “involuntary separation,” meaning his Air Force career was over.
This JTAC also had been demoted in rank for misconduct. On another occasion, he was kicked out of a special unit because he twice called in close air support directly over friendly positions during training. Yet he was allowed to participate in the operation on relatively short notice.
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The Times has learned the JTAC showed a lack of basic knowledge about close air support when interviewed afterward by investigators.
The budget bind
Automatic budget cuts last year left the military unable to fund some pre-deployment training, including for Special Forces teams deployed to execute some of the most dangerous missions in Afghanistan.
A Green Beret A-Team from the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, saw two of its members, along with three soldiers, die that June 9 night. 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 team normally would have spent three to four weeks training in the U.S. at sites whose terrain matches Afghanistan’s arid hills and valleys. This allows them to perfect movements, tactics, awareness of the positions of friendlies and the enemy and radio transmissions.
But the pre-mission training was called off for this A-Team. Budget cuts left no money for Army Special Operations Command to fund the exercise, knowledgeable officials told The Times.
Instead, officials said, the team was forced to perform makeshift training at Fort Campbell that did not come close to replicating Afghanistan’s harsh conditions.
The officials said such pre-deployment training is critical to build a cohesive A-Team. Its absence, they said, could have contributed to some of the confusion that night over the exact locations of the soldiers the B-1B bombed as they fought on a ridgeline against the Taliban. The team had arrived in-country in January, and the mission was its first with kinetic close air support.
There is a subplot to this tragedy.
On Capitol Hill, the five deaths have become one of the war on terror’s most controversial setbacks. Lawmakers and their defense aides have asserted for months that the high-flying B-1B is not the right plane for close air support.
The Air Force announced last year a momentous decision: It is getting rid of the A-10 Warthog, its only plane dedicated to close air support.
The decision was abrupt. The Air Force had been re-winging the plane so it could last three or four more decades. In the world of counterinsurgency, with multiple close firefights, no aircraft is more important to an infantryman than a proven plane and pilot who can cover his back.
Today, the Air Force says it needed to make sacrifices. The continued downturn in defense dollars caused the A-10’s death. And the service defends its decision, both before and after the June 9 disaster, by saying the B-1B can fill the role.
Ms. Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, has been leading a fight to save the Warthog, saying the friendly fire deaths stand as a stark reminder of why the armor-plated workhorse must stay active.
“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,” Ms. Ayotte told The Times.
“In an effort to justify its dangerous and premature proposed divestment of the A-10, the Air Force has argued that other aircraft like the B-1 are equally capable close air support platforms, but any objective assessment of the events on June 9 definitively demonstrates that this is simply not the case,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Army is moving to end the careers of two of the A-Team leaders, though the U.S. Central Command’s official investigation mostly put blame on the Air Force JTAC and the B-1B crew.
The Army’s position is that the team commander and the top sergeant did not know the exact location of the five killed on the ridgeline.
But the expected discipline from Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, head of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, is raising consternation among the Special Forces community, because the two Green Beret A-Team leaders were powerless to correct the B-1B crew mistakes that primarily caused the tragedy. And the Special Forces community wonders why the Air Force assigned a JTAC whose spotty career was over.
Gen. Cleveland could opt to remove both men from leadership posts, ending their careers.
The Air Force has appointed two officers, called convening authorities, to determine whether the JTAC and four bomber fliers will face disciplinary procedures, possibly via courts-martial.
The Central Command investigation tells of a series of errors that doomed the five soldiers.
The B-1B, like other U.S warplanes, is equipped with a high-definition “sniper pod” through which the two weapons officers can view the battlefield and try to find the enemy.
The pod is not capable of detecting infrared strobes worn by U.S. troops. Inexplicably, the crew thought it could — with tragic results.
There was another, more important disconnect: The crew does carry a piece of equipment that can see infrared flashes — night vision goggles (NVG). But the 50-yard-long bomber needs a wide radius over the battle — in this case five miles, or 8,000 meters away. The goggles’ maximum range is 7,000 meters. Still, the right-seat pilot continued to use the goggles like binoculars and report to ground forces that he saw no friendly strobes.
This, say congressional sources, is an indictment of Air Force training.
Said a congressional defense aide: “They appear to have been clueless about their sniper pod and their NVGs, and [close air support] more generally. Not their primary mission, so it is no surprise.”
The flier told investigators that he only used the night vision goggles sporadically while scanning the battlefield because his helmet was too heavy.
Another problem: Through the bombing procedure, the flight crew and JTAC repeatedly failed to hear each other when the bomber was at 12,000 feet. Experts say the B-1B antennae are not conducive to tactical communication within hilly terrain.
Whatever the reason, a lower-flying plane, the AC-130 gunship, which arrived late in the game, eventually was used to relay ground-to-bomber radio talk.
At no time during its five-mile orbit did the air crew apparently ask themselves why they were not picking up infrared flashes even though they were being told the Americans below were wearing them.
Tragically, everyone on the ground thought the infrared flashing kept them safe.
This set the stage for a dark comedy — a sequence of radio communications in which the JTAC would ask the bomber if it saw the infrared flashing, and the air crew would answer “no.” Both then presumed that since they saw muzzle flashes, but not infrared, it must be the enemy. Bombs were dropped.
This, then, was the deadly mix: The B-1B sensor pod was not capable of detecting friendly infrared flashes, but the crew thought it was; the pilot used night vision goggles, but strobes were too far away. The Air Force JTAC performed badly.
For this report, The Times relied on the U.S. Central Command investigation, led by Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, its witness statements and officials who asked not to be named.
Air Force response
In an interview, Capt. Andrew Schrag, a spokesman for Air Force Air Combat Command, defended the use of the B-1B for close air support. He said the combat command is reviewing crew procedures.
He acknowledged that the B-1B bomber was too far away to see the infrared strobes through the crew’s night vision goggles.
“Correct, which is why, when the B-1 operator looked at the ground, he didn’t see anything, nor would he be expected to, because it was outside the range of his optical equipment,” Capt. Schrag said.
“The B-1 has the ability to loiter,” he said. “An A-10 might have been able to see it through an NVG. What a B-1 brings to the fight is the ability to stay on-site and loiter for eight, 10, 12 hours. Unlimited, basically, when you talk about aerial refueling.”
Capt. Schrag added: “This is the first recorded instance of a friendly force fatality caused by a B-1B during 13 years of close air support in the Afghanistan theater. [Close air support] is an inherently challenging mission, but our mandate is to consider the findings, conclusions and recommendations and improve our processes to ensure we avoid tragedies like this one.”
Capt. Schrag said the next step is a complete review of tactics and to “improve our processes to ensure we avoid tragedies like this one.”
U.S. Central Command has issued a statistic that says since 2006, the B-1B has conducted a little more than 10 percent of close air support missions in Afghanistan. But the statistic does not reveal how many of those missions dropped bombs or instead conducted a show of force or what type of fighting they were called to support under what conditions.
There are instances of B-1Bs arriving for close air support and dropping bombs on Afghan civilians in buildings. An A-10 pilot says a B-1B in one operation dropped bombs where he would not, and civilians were killed.
Mr. McCain has stated that the B-1B is reserved for very limited types of close air support missions.
The June 8-9 mission
On June 9, over the hills of Zabul province, the B-1B arrived to guard the A-Team as soldiers exited the Gaza Valley via helicopter.
The A-Team did not know this B-1B could not see their infrared strobes. During the team’s six months in country, the B-1B had conducted only a few show-of-force flyovers.
The A-Team captain later said of its arrival: “We thought that we were receiving an AC-130, so the B-1 was a surprise.”
There were A-10s in Afghanistan that night, but they were not allocated for this mission.
The team’s job was to guide the Afghan National Army as it swept down the Gaza Valley, village by village, to roust the enemy before the presidential runoff elections.
The Green Beret captain ended the mission as the sun set June 9. They had fought in sweltering 100-degree weather, taxing their radios and their sleep-deprived bodies.
CH-47s Chinook helicopters were on the way as the B-1B arrived to watch everyone’s back.
At this point, the soldiers came under attack. A-Team members said there were two to three attackers; two conventional infantrymen believed it was a lone gunman.
The shots prompted the five doomed soldiers to leave a low-lying ditch and move to a ridgeline to better return fire and protect the landing zone. The team notified the B-1B it needed a strike.
On the ground, everyone was rechecking their infrared strobes, the supposed lifesavers.
“Well, they won’t hit us now,” one soldier said as the strobe was attached. The ridgeline soldiers even placed a strobe on a backpack on the ground.
Problems erupted immediately. The Air Force JTAC reached the bomber by radio only sporadically.
“The FM comms were unusually bad on this mission, and there were periods where we couldn’t communicate with the JTAC at all,” one B-1B pilot told investigators.
Surprisingly, one of two pilots said they were never briefed before takeoff on performing close air support in that valley. “I don’t recall any specific brief,” the flier said.
A Green Beret who also specializes in communicating with aircraft explained why the JTAC had trouble talking to the B-1B.
“There were many communication issues due to the orbit of the B-1 in conjunction with the mountainous terrain, causing terrain masking,” he said.
Next came the biggest mistake: The air crew saw muzzle flashes from the ridgeline, but they did not see an infrared signal from that spot.
They repeatedly were queried by the JTAC. And the air crew repeatedly said they saw no strobes. As a result, they wrongly concluded that the muzzle flashes were coming from the bad guys.
The investigation concluded the ridgeline soldiers became targets “based solely” on the fact the bomber did not see their infrared (IR) strobes.
“The B-1 continued to verify that they saw no strobes in their pod,” said a Green Beret.
A B-1B crew member said later, “We never saw a strobe.”
A pilot with the goggles added, “In the cockpit, nobody saw any IR strobes.”
The second big mistake: The Air Force JTAC first reported that those five soldiers, thought to still be on low ground, were only 130 meters away from the ridgeline target, too close to drop a bomb. On a subsequent transmission, he changed their position, incorrectly reporting the distance as 300 meters, or safe to drop.
Where a seasoned A-10 pilot might have cross-examined the JTAC, the air crew did not question this abrupt change and later defended the decision not to do so.
A B-1B weapons officer, who programed the bomb guidance system to hit the ridgeline, said: “We have huge faith in the coordinates given to us by the [JTAC], so actually verifying that friendlies are located at this grid is not as important as searching for attackers. Given the comms condition, I’m not going to waste precious time questioning the information the JTAC is passing.”
Compounding these two mistakes: The A-Team leader and the JTAC thought the five soldiers were still below the ridge. The investigative report said the troop shift was not effectively communicated to them.
“I thought they were at the bottom of the hill in a ditch,” the A-Team leader said. “I found out later that some guys had moved forward from their position.”
The bombing site was pure horror. One soldier was decapitated. Another was alive, asking for help, saying he had trouble breathing. Then he was gone. The Afghan sergeant was obliterated.
The publicly released investigative file does not include the four-page statement of the Air Force JTAC. Central Command completely censored his version of events.
Air Force officials familiar with the investigation said the JTAC did not do well during questioning. He changed his story several times and displayed a troubling lack of knowledge about basic close air support procedures.
He had been demoted from staff sergeant to senior airman, E-5 to E-4, for misconduct.
This mission could have turned out differently from the start. The A-Team captain asked higher-ups to let the departing JTAC, an experienced hand in Afghanistan, stay for one last mission to break in the new controller. Higher-ups declined because the departing JTAC’s travel plans were made and bags were packed. Unpacking would mean another round of security checks.
Some in the Special Forces community believe that decision rang the death knell for the five soldiers. They believe the experienced JTAC would not have made critical blunders spelled out in the investigative report released in September.
A retired JTAC said he would never use the lack of an infrared strobe signal as positive identification of a target.
Save the A-10
In April, the Air Force top brass came before the Senate Committee on Armed Services to talk about next year’s budget.
But Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican and a seasoned wartime pilot, was not so much interested in macro numbers as he was in one item: the future of close air support.
He wanted to hear Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, chief of staff, explain the decision to abolish the A-10 and tell him what would replace it.
Answered Ms. James: “In terms of the A-10, what is intended to replace the percentage that the A-10 was doing in terms of close air support, in the immediate future, would be the other aircraft such as F-16, F-15E and so forth that are capable of doing — “
Mr. McCain, not afraid to bluntly question generals and their civilian heads, stopped her right there, asking her to detail the “so forth.”
She said it included the B-1B: “It is my belief that the B-1 bomber has done some close air support in Afghanistan.”
Sen. McCain expressed amazement.
“That’s a remarkable statement,” he told her. “That doesn’t comport with any experience I’ve ever had, nor anyone I know has ever had. See, this is an example. You’re throwing in the B-1 bomber as a close air support weapon to replace the A-10. This is the reason why there is such incredible skepticism here in Congress.”
Gen. Welsh jumped in to say the B-1B had been doing close air support for some time.
Incensed, Mr. McCain said those had been “a very limited number of missions of close air support. General, please don’t insult my intelligence.”
The next month, a group of senators wrote to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, asking it to stop the A-10’s retirement. It contained a darkly accurate prediction from a retired Air Force air controller.
“I am — like many of my former colleagues — alive today because of the A-10,” said retired Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Brandenburg, a JTAC who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “If the A-10 had been divested the last time the Air Force wanted to do so, I would likely have not returned home from combat to my family. If the A-10 is not available in future conflicts when our ground troops call for help, Americans will needlessly be injured and killed.”
The battle to save the A-10 had begun in 2013 after the Air Force announcement. More than 30 members of Congress wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, saying, “It would be unconscionable to further cut an asset like the A-10 increasing the risks to our service members.”
The Air Force already has decommissioned three squadrons, one in Europe, thus reducing the plane’s availability.
The A-10 coalition has stopped the Air Force, at least temporarily, from taking down any more squadrons. That prohibition expires in December. But a new one is contained in the fiscal 2015 defense policy bill that will be debated after the midterm elections.
A-10 — a difference maker?
Would the A-10, instead of the B-1B, have made a difference on the night of June 9? The Warthog’s backers answer with a resounding “yes.”
They point out, first of all, that A-10 pilots live and breathe close air support. They practice it. They know how to talk a JTAC’s language, and they know how to challenge him if something does not add up.
B-1B crew members are, first and foremost, strategic bombers who train to fly long distances and drop bombs on selected targets.
“The A-10s would not have been orbiting five miles away,” said William Smith, a retired Air Force officer who logged more than 3,000 miles on the A-10. “They would have been right over top of the fight.”
He further explained how the A-10 and pilot do the job: “Being right over the fight, with the A-10’s tighter turn radius, gives us the ability to stay right on top of the target, allowing the pilot to have constant eyes on the fight. A-10 pilots know you can’t see the infrared strobe in the sniper pod. You need to look out the window, through the NVGs. A-10 pilots wear the goggles continuously.”
Mr. Smith is now part of a coalition trying to save the A-10. He grimaces when discussing the B-1B as a stand-in.
“The B-1 cockpit is not very compatible with using the night vision goggles. Both the lighting in the cockpit and just the shape of the cockpit — as they’re turning their heads, they’re whacking into things with the NVGs. This was told to me by B-1 pilots. In the A-10 you don’t have that.”
Even if the B-1B flew within the goggles’ range, there are other drawbacks.
“When you have windows that are that thick, they allow less light in. And night vision goggles work strictly on how much ambient light is in the atmosphere. There are limitations with the B-1. It wasn’t designed for this. They’re trying to force this square peg into a round hole.”
Mr. Smith said he is sure that an A-10 pilot, hearing the JTAC give two very different locations for the same group of friendlies, would have asked a series of questions before even considering the use of ammo.
But the bottom line is, he said, “I have no doubt an A-10 pilot would have seen the strobes, and he would have seen there were now two groups of strobes, indicating a split in the friendly force. He would have coordinated and reconciled that discrepancy with the JTAC before any ordnance was dropped.”
To Mr. Smith, a major cause of the June 9 tragedy was not just the wrong airplane, but also the lack of proper training.
“Now the B-1 guys did make a tragic error, Mr. Smith said. “But the fault in this whole thing, in this A-10 guy’s opinion, is that this is a failure of upper Air Force leadership more than anything else. The crew is being held accountable for things they didn’t know because they couldn’t know them. They hadn’t been trained properly to know these types of things.”
Capt. Schrag, the Air Force spokesman, responded: “Every aircraft has its pros and cons. We might have a different story if an A-10 had been on-site but had to get refueled and wasn’t available at all for close air support. Then all of a sudden the story is, ‘time limit, range-limited A-10 unable to provide close air support due to fuel constraints.’
“All this hindsight 20/20 stuff. You take the aircraft you believe is going to provide the best capabilities for your particular mission of the day.”