Friday, June 20, 2003

Two U.S. Air Force pilots involved in a friendly fire bombing incident in Afghanistan will not be court-martialed in the accidental deaths of four Canadian troops.

Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., decided against courts-martial for Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach, the Air Force said in a statement.

Instead, Maj. Umbach will be allowed to retire with a letter of reprimand, and Maj. Schmidt, whose plane dropped a 500-pound guided bomb onto a group of Canadian troops, faces only nonjudicial punishment.

“The charges preferred against Major Harry Schmidt will not be referred to trial by court-martial,” the Air Force statement said. “General Carlson has instead initiated nonjudicial punishment proceedings under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”

Maj. Schmidt and Maj. Umbach, each of whom was piloting an F-16 fighter, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty in connection with the accidental attack on a group of Canadian troops near Kandahar on April 17, 2002.

The pilots, both members of the Illinois National Guard, had faced up to 64 years in prison if convicted in a court-martial.

Instead of criminal action, Maj. Umbach received a letter of reprimand for “leadership failures” related to the incident. The major has asked to retire, and Gen. Carlson said he would recommend that the request be granted.

Unless Maj. Schmidt rejects the Article 15 disciplinary hearing and demands a trial by court-martial, the stiffest punishments he could get would be the loss of a month’s pay, arrest in quarters for 30 days, restriction to a specific area for 60 days, and a reprimand.

The Air Force statement said Maj. Schmidt’s Article 15 hearing could involve charges of failing to make sure that “the target he attacked was not friendly.”

The proceedings also will probe whether Maj. Schmidt dropped his bomb too soon, rather than wait, as the Air Force says he was told by an Airborne Warning And Control System aircraft guiding the planes.

Gen. Carlson also has asked that the Air Force’s Flying Evaluation Board review whether Maj. Schmidt should be grounded.

In Ottawa, Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum said he sympathized with the families of the four soldiers killed and eight injured in the bombing but declined to comment on the decision not to prosecute under a court-martial.

“My heart goes out to the families of those who were killed and to those who were injured who have suffered a great deal and this is another stage on that path,” Mr. McCallum said. “I understand that feelings may run high and that there may be anger and frustration on the part of Canadians and I certainly sympathize with that.”

However, Mr. McCallum stated: “I will not comment on the outcome of the U.S. military justice system” at any time.

He said he hopes that lessons learned will reduce the risk of future military mishaps.

During a patrol flight over Afghanistan, the F-16 pilots reported seeing ground fire and identified the fire as coming from Taliban or al Qaeda fighters. Maj. Schmidt’s plane then dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb onto what he believed was the source of the fire.

The Washington Times, quoting transcripts of an investigation of the matter, reported Nov. 26 that the Canadian troops were firing their weapons into the air and were told minutes before the bombing to halt the live-fire training in order to let a cargo plane and helicopter land at nearby Kandahar airfield.

An investigation of the incident initially stated that the 100 Canadian soldiers near Kandahar were firing horizontally during antitank training, but later interviews showed that some of the soldiers were firing into the sky from the Tarnak Farm Ranges.

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