U.S. deaths in drone strike due to miscommunication, report says
A Marine and a Navy medic killed by a U.S. drone airstrike were targeted when Marine commanders in Afghanistan mistook them for Taliban fighters, even though analysts watching the Predator’s video feed were uncertain whether the men were part of an enemy force.
Those are the findings of a Pentagon investigation of the first known case of friendly fire deaths involving an unmanned aircraft, the April 6 attack that killed Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Navy Hospitalman Benjamin D. Rast, 23.
The 381-page report, which has not been released, concludes that the Marine officers on the scene and the Air Force crew controlling the drone from half a world away were unaware that analysts watching the firefight unfold via live video at a third location had doubts about the targets’ identity.
The incident closely resembles another deadly mistake involving a Predator in early 2009. In that attack, at least 15 Afghan civilians were killed after a Predator crew mistook them for a group of Taliban preparing to attack a U.S. special forces unit.
In that case, analysts located at Air Force Special Operations Command in Florida who were watching live battlefield video from the aircraft’s high-altitude cameras also had doubts about the target. Their warnings that children were present were disregarded by the drone operator and by an Army captain, who authorized the airstrike.
Because names are redacted in the Pentagon report, it is unclear which Marine officer made the final decision to order the airstrike that killed Smith and Rast. But a senior Marine officer familiar with the investigation said commanders at the battalion or regimental level would have the ultimate authority, not the lieutenant who led the platoon during the battle.
The friendly fire deaths in April occurred at 8:51 a.m. in Helmand province after Smith and his platoon, members of a reserve unit from Houston, came under enemy fire. The platoon had split up while trying to clear a road near the crossroads town of Sangin, an area in which Marines were engaged in nearly daily combat with insurgents.
Smith, Rast and another Marine had separated from the others and had taken cover behind a hedgerow, where they were firing on insurgents in a cluster of nearby buildings.
Infrared cameras on the Predator overhead had picked up heat signatures of the three men and detected muzzle flashes as they fired their weapons at insurgents.
Air Force analysts who were watching the live video in Terre Haute, Indiana, noted that the gunfire appeared aimed away from the other Marines, who were behind the three. The analysts reported that gunshots were “oriented to the west, away from friendly forces,” the Pentagon report says.
But the Predator pilot in Nevada and the Marine commanders on the ground “were never made aware” of the analysts’ assessment.
Smith, a combat veteran on his fourth deployment, knew the airstrike was coming, but assumed the missile was aimed at a suspected Taliban position in a building 200 yards away. Smith declined to take cover in a canal with other Marines because he wanted to make sure the Predator hit the insurgent target, Pentagon officials told his father, Jerry Smith.
But the Predator crew didn’t realize that Smith and the two others had separated from the other Marines, and assumed they were enemy, according to the report.
The pilot radioed “time of flight 17 seconds.” A Marine at the scene suddenly radioed a warning: The missile was headed for “the wrong building.” But the Hellfire exploded on Smith’s position, killing him and Rast.
The analysts, who communicated with the Predator pilot via a written chat system, were never certain who Smith and Rast were. At one point, the analysts described the pair as “friendlies,” but withdrew that characterization a few seconds later. They later wrote, “Unable to discern who personnel were.”
Even a written assessment that the gunfire was aimed in the wrong direction was not passed along to the pilot by the Mission Intelligence Coordinator, a crew member responsible for relaying information to the pilot, the report says. The coordinator was a trainee supervised by a trainer.
The report blames the attack on a fatal mix of poor communications, faulty assumptions and “a lack of overall common situational awareness.” It recommends that a Marine lieutenant and two sergeants in Smith’s platoon be “formally counseled” and suggests detailed reviews of battlefield procedures, but it said no one involved in the attack was “culpably negligent or derelict in their duties.”
“The chain of events … was initiated by the on-scene ground force commander’s lack of overall situational awareness and inability to accurately communicate his friendly force disposition in relation to the enemy,” the report said.
The report, which was originally classified secret and written by a Marine colonel, criticizes the analysts for failing to make sure the pilot understood that the gunfire was aimed away from the Marines. The analysts “should have been more assertive,” it says, “and “should have persisted with their assessment until the crew either accepted or refuted the assessment.”
The report also criticizes the Marine lieutenant who led the battle for lacking “a complete understanding” of where his forces were located, and the sergeant in charge of the element that included Smith and Rast for not giving clear reports during the fight.
The analysts in Indiana told investigators that they did not believe they should intervene to block an airstrike if U.S. troops were possibly in danger, even if they had doubts about the targets.
When U.S. troops were under fire, the analysts told investigators, “they were to adopt a non-interference role, unless they observed an imminent violation” of the laws of war or women and children were present, the report said.
The email chat system also contributed to the breakdown in communications, investigators said.
After the Afghan civilians were mistakenly targeted in early 2009, the Air Force began installing equipment so drone video analysts could talk directly with drone pilots. The new equipment was not in place at the Indiana base in April, however.
The investigation of the deaths of the Marine staff sergeant and Navy hospitalman was completed in May and the findings were presented to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was in command in Afghanistan at the time. Military officers briefed Smith’s father, Jerry, on Wednesday in Fort Worth and met with Rast’s father, Robert, on Friday in South Bend, Ind.
“Everybody was convinced everybody knew where everybody else was — including Jeremy,” Jerry Smith said in a telephone interview after he was briefed. “It was just a horrible set of circumstances.”
Smith said he was briefed on the investigation for more than three hours by a Marine investigator and by Marine and Air Force officers. He said he has not yet read the report.
Smith was shown video images taken by the Predator, he said. He saw “three blobs in really dark shadows” — his son, Rast and the other Marine mistakenly identified by the Predator crew as Taliban. He said it was impossible to see uniforms or weapons.
“You couldn’t even tell they were human beings — just blobs,” he said.
Smith said he asked investigators about the reflective tags that U.S. forces wear on their uniforms to help identify them to friendly aircraft. He was told the tags didn’t work in low-light conditions such as the shaded area where his son took cover.
Smith said he didn’t blame anyone for his son’s death, and did not want “scapegoats.” He said he favored improved training and procedures to prevent future friendly fire attacks and counseling for those involved in the April 6 attack.
“I know whoever was at that [Predator] joystick is devastated,” he said. “If I could meet them, I’d hug them and tell them I don’t have any ill feelings toward them. I know their daddies are just as proud of them as I am of my son.”
When Smith met his son’s platoon and company commanders as the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, returned to Houston this month, he said both men broke down and sobbed. He said he assured the officers he did not blame them.
“I’m sure everyone involved is second-guessing themselves worse than I ever could.”
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