Friendly Fire May Be Behind 5 U.S. Deaths in Afghanistan

Five U.S. special operations forces were killed in Afghanistan yesterday in a possible “friendly fire” incident involving a B-1B bomber, NATO and U.S. officials said.

The soldiers were members of the International Security Assistance Force and died during an operation in southern Afghanistan after their unit came in contact with enemy forces, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Chris Belcher, deputy director of the ISAF headquarters public affairs office, said in an e-mail.

“Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said today in an e-mailed statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen.”

The incident underscored the dangers faced by American forces in Afghanistan as the U.S. draws down from 32,800 today to 9,800 through this year, with that deployment cut in half by the end of next year and only a handful after 2016. Many of the troops that remain in Afghanistan conducting counter-terrorism missions will be special operations forces like the ones killed yesterday.

Belcher said the incident is under investigation.

A defense official who spoke on the condition of not being named pending an investigation said the aircraft involved was a B-1B bomber providing close air support to the U.S. personnel.

Designed for Cold War missions into the Soviet Union, the bomber for years has been used to provide ground support to units in Afghanistan using satellite-guided bombs.

Budget Politics

The incident also may ripple into defense budget politics as Congress decides on a U.S. Air Force proposal this year to retire A-10 Warthog aircraft designed for close air support, saving about $4 billion over five years. The aircraft has strong support among lawmakers, defense analysts and retired ground soldiers because of its capability to loiter at low altitudes over a battlefield firing a nose-mounted cannon at the enemy and its ability to discern friend from enemy better than a bomber, such as the B-1B.

Two of the three defense panels acting on the fiscal 2015 defense bill have endorsed keeping the aircraft on active duty. An amendment to preserve the A-10 was rejected today by the House Appropriations Committee.

The Air Force has argued that the close air support mission can be performed with higher flying aircraft such as the F-16 fighter and B-1B bomber.

It’s “a bit of leap right now” to link the friendly fire deaths to the debate over the A-10 because an inquiry into the cause is just beginning, Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon today.

Friendly Fire

There have been several friendly fire incidents since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. One of the most publicized was Pat Tillman, who died in 2004 after giving up a professional football career to join the U.S. Army Rangers.

A congressional committee wound up investigating Tillman’s death after the military and White House waited to give details to his family and the public. Army reports initially indicated that Tillman died while fighting enemies in a ravine, an act for which he was awarded the Silver Star.

In late May, Obama said the U.S. will cut its military presence in Afghanistan to almost zero over the next two years and redirect its efforts to combat the evolving nature of terrorism.

“It’s time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Obama said in remarks at the White House. Bringing troops home will let the U.S. “respond more nimbly to the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.’”