Responding to charges of a Pentagon cover-up, senior Air Force officials plan to announce today that seven officers are being severely disciplined--effectively ending their careers--for their part in a “friendly fire” tragedy in the skies over Iraq last year.
The highly unusual punishment, being meted out against two brigadier generals, two pilots and three radar plane crew members, comes after the Air Force court-martial system earlier failed to find anyone criminally responsible for the mistaken destruction of two U.S. helicopters carrying 26 people.
Fifteen Americans and 11 foreign officials were killed in the accident. The mistake triggered not only harsh criticism of the Air Force but deep internal reviews of how the errors were made and how the military can toughen its policies to make service members responsible for their actions.
“Many people thought this was a total whitewash,” one senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said Monday. “The families of the victims and the people on Capitol Hill and even people in the Pentagon thought that. A lot of people thought this was just a cover-up to protect the pilots and others.”
But, the official said, the disciplinary action should dispel concerns that, even when military courts sometimes exonerate alleged wrongdoing, internal Pentagon mechanisms will assure accountability.
“Basically I would say these guys are finished,” the official added. “It’s very unlikely they will ever be promoted given this.”
Those being punished are:
* Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Pilkington, now vice commander of the air intelligence command in San Antonio, and Brig. Gen. Curtis Emery II, assigned to the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense organization. As senior Air Force officers who helped oversee enforcement of the “no-fly” zone over the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, they are receiving adverse letters of evaluation from the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force that will be permanently attached to their personnel files.
* Two pilots: Lt. Col. Randy May, now commander of an F-15 squadron in Germany, and Capt. Eric Wickson, now a flight instructor. The two fired missiles that blasted the U.S. UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters out of the sky after they apparently confused the aircraft with Russian-built Hind helicopters flown by the Iraqi military.
The pilots are being grounded for three years and also will receive adverse letters of evaluation--job actions that in the highly competitive field of military aviation all but cuts short their future in the Air Force.
“It essentially finishes them as pilots,” the senior Pentagon official said. “They can’t fly any more. They can’t even teach.”
* Capt. Jim Wang, Capt. Joseph Halcli and First Lt. Ricky Wilson, all members of an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) radar surveillance crew that allegedly misidentified the helicopters as enemy aircraft.
They also are being grounded for three years and will receive adverse letters of evaluation. “Essentially, they won’t be able to do what they were trained to do either,” the official said.
For Wang, the discipline is bittersweet. He was the only member of the military to stand trial at a court-martial for the incident, and in June he was acquitted on charges of dereliction of duty.
The accident occurred April 14, 1994, during enforcement of the “no-fly” restrictions over Iraq.
From the outset, even after Defense Secretary William J. Perry promised a full review of the incident, relatives of the victims as well as many Pentagon insiders expected little would come in the way of discipline in the worst “friendly fire” accident in recent military history.
But sources Monday said that even as the case wound its way through the Air Force’s court-martial system, the service’s internal management was conducting its own review to determine if administrative sanctions were appropriate.
After Wang was acquitted on June 20, Perry asked Deputy Defense Secretary John White to instruct the Air Force to examine all disciplinary actions that should be taken in the case.
On July 24, White issued a memorandum directing the Air Force to review not only the specific actions that should be taken but ordering an examination of the “whole system as well,” one official said.
Gen. Ronald Fogleman, who as chief of staff of the Air Force conducted that review, has notified the seven Air Force members in a report he approved last Wednesday.
In his report, Fogleman found a number of problems, including that while a number of Air Force personnel failed to meet Air Force standards, those deficiencies were never adequately reflected in their personnel files.
“I have personally expressed my deep concern . . . to each of the senior officers involved,” Fogleman wrote. “We must ensure that senior leaders are absolutely committed to the accurate documentation of performance that does not meet Air Force standards.”
Although the disciplinary citations will be forwarded to the secretary of defense’s office for his review, it appears unlikely that they will be overturned.
“This is a done deal,” one source said.