Friendly Fire Found to Kill U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Five U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan on June 9 because of a botched American air-support mission that mistook the troops for enemy forces, an investigation by U.S. Central Command concluded.

“This tragic incident was avoidable,” Air Force Major General Jeffrey Harrigian said in a report released yesterday.

“The key members executing the close air-support mission collectively failed to effectively execute the fundamentals, which resulted in poor situational awareness and improper target identification,” Harrigian wrote.

The soldiers were among U.S. special operations forces in Zabul province who were working to improve security in advance of Afghanistan’s runoff elections, according to the report. One Afghan soldier also was killed in the airstrike by a B-1B bomber.

The incident underscored the continuing dangers faced by American forces in Afghanistan as the U.S. draws down from more than 30,000 troops this year to 9,800 by the beginning of 2015. Many of the troops remaining there conducting counterterrorism missions will be special operations forces like the ones who died in the June incident.

The botched mission by the B-1B bomber also may reverberate in Congress, where lawmakers have been debating an Air Force budget proposal to retire the A-10 Warthog aircraft to save about $4 billion over five years. The A-10 is designed for close air support, missions aimed at hostile targets that are close to friendly forces.

Pat Tillman

The Warthog has strong support among some lawmakers and retired ground soldiers because of its ability to loiter at low altitudes over a battlefield and discern friend from enemy better than a bomber, such as the B-1B.

Several incidents of U.S. troops being killed accidentally by their colleagues have been reported since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, including the case of Pat Tillman, who died in 2004. Army reports initially indicated that Tillman, who had given up a professional football career to join the Army Rangers, died while fighting enemies in a ravine, an act for which he was awarded the Silver Star.

In the June 9 incident, the five U.S. soldiers and one Afghan were searching for enemy forces in southeastern Afghanistan when coalition forces received reports that insurgents in the area were reporting on U.S. and allied movements, according to the Central Command’s findings.

Muzzle Flashes

While coalition forces moved from one location to another to evade the enemy, their movement “was not effectively communicated” to the Joint Terminal Attack Controller, who’s responsible for calling for aircraft support when ground troops are endangered. That error led the team to conclude incorrectly that muzzle flashes spotted on a ridgeline were “enemy activity -- an incorrect target identification that was accepted by the aircrew,” Harrigian wrote.

When the controller authorized the aircrew to drop bombs on the targeted location, “none of the aircrew effectively questioned the abrupt change in friendly location,” the report said.

About 21 minutes later, two bombs landed on the targeted ridgeline where U.S. troops were stationed. The soldiers who died were identified in the report as Staff Sergeant Jason McDonald, Staff Sergeant Scott Studenmund, Specialist Justin Helton, Corporal Justin Clouse, Private Aaron Toppen, and Sergeant Gulbuddin Ghulam Sakhi.

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