February 7, 2003
Grisly Accidents Call 'Precision Warfare' Into Question
By David Wood, Newhouse News Service
[reprinted with permission]
It is well after dark in Kuwait but still warm out on the desert floor. In the constellations of stars overhead on March 12, 2001, are the faint, winking navigation lights of three jets, circling high.
One is piloted by squadron commander David O. Zimmerman, among the most experienced aviators in the Navy. On the ground below is a cluster of men including Jason Faley, an Air Force special operations forward air controller. Together they are practicing close air support, the most difficult and dangerous mission in today's military: dropping bombs in the vicinity of friendly troops, on small targets, at night.
Zimmerman pushes his F-18 over into a power dive, 26 tons of high technology plummeting the equivalent of a 30-story building every second. All systems go. Three 500-pound bombs on the racks. Airspeed 533 mph. Zimmerman searching for his target, thumb poised above the bomb-release button.
Then a terrible moment in which it becomes clear the pilot is in the wrong place. Someone on the ground screams into his radio, "Abort! Abort! Abort!" But Zimmerman's thumb has already depressed the bomb release.
As the explosions blossom below, there are words of shock in another cockpit: "He just killed every single one of them."
Six were dead, in fact. And 11 wounded.
The United States military heads toward war in Iraq boasting of its ability to wage "precision warfare" -- not only to hit any target at any time, but to accomplish "the surgical destruction of specific aim points within a target," as Navy Vice Adm. John Nathman, a senior naval air commander, once said.
Indeed, the notion that Americans have mastered technology to produce a "revolution" in warfare is gospel to today's military, a bedrock belief that brooks no challenge.
Out in the real world, though, things look different: a long and continuing history of accidents including, notoriously, last year's deadly bombing by an Air Force F-16 of Canadian troops on maneuvers in Afghanistan.
The mounting death toll -- of U.S. soldiers, allied troops, innocent civilians and simply "unknowns" -- is bloody evidence that despite the best pilots, the best forward air controllers and indeed the best technology, "The system is out of control," as a strike fighter pilot phrases it.
Despite a rising chorus of critics, the high command maintains there is no problem -- or at least, that any problem can be fixed with some tweaks and patches.
"In the history of warfare, there's always been friendly fire; it's always heartbreaking," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last fall.
But, Rumsfeld added: "I've not heard nor seen anybody who has seen a pattern that's correctable. ... It's just the way life is, I suppose, and when you're dealing with bombs ... people get hurt. It's a shame."
In her immaculate bedroom, by the curtained window that looks across a suburban cul-de-sac outside Richmond, Va., Sue Faley bends her head over her Gateway computer and begins once again to type. The keys clack into the emptiness of the new white frame house. The room smells of furniture polish and despair.
"Dear Mr. President, we are writing to you today, asking for your help -- on March 12, 2001, our beloved son, Staff Sgt. Jason Faley, was taken from us."
She got the news from a relative who heard it on the radio. Six killed, 11 wounded in Kuwait by bombs mistakenly dropped on their position. Without hearing his name, she knew, in the terrible and final way that mothers, with sons at war, know.
In the old days, pilots flew low and slow over the battlefield, craning out the cockpit window, jawing by radio with the grunts below who talked them onto the target. World War II pilots lived with the Army -- indeed, they were the Army Air Corps. They had a gut feel for the flow of battle and became murderously adept at finding and killing pockets of German forces.
In 1947 the Air Corps was wrenched away from the Army and made an independent Air Force, and some say the trouble started then.
With exceptions -- notably during Vietnam when some fighter jocks would come in under 500 feet to strike enemy that were in direct contact with U.S. troops -- pilots have been flying faster and higher ever since, relying on instructions from elsewhere to distinguish their targets.
In recent years, the wildfire spread of lethal shoulder-fired missiles, common to armies and terrorists alike, has forced pilots still farther from the ground -- to heights of three miles and more. Dizzying advances in such precision bombs as the satellite-guided JDAM, for Joint Direct Attack Munition, give air crews confidence that from any altitude, in any weather, they can "hit the `dimpi,"' the Desired Mean Point of Impact.
To compensate for the pilot's loss of direct awareness of the situation on the ground, the military has devised a network of remote sensors, intelligence fusion centers, targeting cells and high-speed data streams linking airborne and ground control nodes that may be hundreds of miles or even continents apart.
Airborne platforms such as the Predator spyplane and AWACS and JSTARS aircraft, which use sophisticated radar and other sensors to track air and ground traffic, transmit data back toward an air operation center. There, analysts assign targets and coordinate air traffic hours or days in advance. In the process, critics say, the exercise of judgment has left the cockpit and gone inside this complex "command and control" system.
Deviations from the plan are bucked to higher-ranking officers, who hold authority over requests from pilots to respond to unanticipated targets or threats.
Forward air controllers on the ground -- like Jason Faley -- provide final guidance to inbound strike aircraft.
The weaknesses of this rigid, bureaucratic structure in swiftly and accurately handling today's swirling, unpredictable battles are evident. But there are other problems as well.
One is that Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps jets don't all use the same communications equipment, complicating efforts to get everyone the same data. Different models of the same airplane can carry different and incompatible communications gear.
And so, persistently, the "dimpi" turns out to be something other than the target, sometimes with tragic consequences.
"We can put a munition on that three-dimensional spot," says Mark Mandeles, an independent systems analyst who has studied the problem for the Pentagon. "But we have not put even a fraction of that effort into figuring out what it is we are killing."
In December, five of the nation's most experienced retired warriors -- two infantrymen and three strike fighter pilots -- launched a fusillade against the Pentagon, warning of "severe deficiencies" in the strike aircraft, tactics, equipment and training involved in close air support.
"Our armed forces' ability to provide and employ effective CAS (close air support) is waning," wrote these experts, including Chuck Myers, who flew close air support missions in two wars and was director of air warfare for the Pentagon.
The Navy, Air Force and Army all declined to talk about close air support for this article and referred questions to the Defense Department's joint staff, which designated Army Col. Peter T. Hayward, an air defense officer, to respond.
"The system is way too complex for a (single) `fix,"' Hayward says. "We're looking at a series of fixes that will evolve over time."
But with senior officers acknowledging that they are "years away" from a solution, the unfolding of grisly accidents is expected to continue.
In 1983 in Grenada, Navy fighter-bombers mistakenly attacked a mental institution, killing 21 patients, and four Navy strike jets strafed a U.S. Army command post, wounding 17 soldiers.
During Desert Storm eight years later, seven U.S. Marines were killed and two wounded when an Air Force A-10 fired a Maverick missile into the Marines' Light Armored Vehicle.
In Serbia four years ago, U.S. fighter-bombers put precision-guided bombs directly on a target in Belgrade -- which turned out to be the Chinese embassy.
In Kosovo, a "misfire" caused bombs to hit a civilian convoy, incinerating several dozen men, women and children.
In December 2001, a B-52 bomber dropped a satellite-guided bomb that went "errant," according to a Defense Department press statement. The 2,000-pound bomb killed three U.S. soldiers and five allied Afghans and narrowly missed killing the just-appointed president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.
Three months later, a Special Forces soldier was killed in Afghanistan by precision-fire from an AC-130 gunship.
Last April, four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight wounded by a bomb dropped by an F-16.
In dozens of exhaustive investigations of these and other incidents runs a common thread. The equipment worked perfectly. The pilot was well trained and experienced. The system worked. Conclusion: human error.
In a small house outside Fort Campbell, Ky., where Jason Faley was stationed, his wife Shannon and their son Andrew, now 3, go on with their lives. Shannon is pursuing a doctorate in biomedical engineering and works fulltime as a single mom.
Sometimes, she says, she and Andrew will be strolling down the street and Andrew, spying a distant figure, will shout, "There he is! That's my Dad!" Andrew, she says, "is just beginning his own struggle" with what happened.
Doggedly, with her grandson in mind, Sue Faley writes on.
June 10: "Dear Sen. Warner, I am writing to you today to ask for your help in getting answers to what really happened on March 12, 2001."
June 17: "Dear Sen. Clinton, I am writing to you today to appeal to you as a woman and a mother to please help me."
E-mail, July 17: "Dear Sen. Lott, This is not my first letter or e-mail, nor will it be the last."
When she receives a copy of Jason Faley's death certificate, it is dated 12 March 1945. "Hell, I wasn't even born then," she says.
"Dear Mr. President, On May 17th I wrote to you in regard to the `military accident' in Kuwait. It seems you must be too busy to reply."
Hours after Jason Faley was killed, the military convened an investigations board. Its findings became known as the Udairi Range report, after the training area where the incident took place.
Among those testifying was Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy B. Crusing, a forward air controller who was in charge on the ground that night, working at Observation Post 10 with Faley and the others.
"Incidents like this have happened before," Crusing said, according to a transcript that has not been made public. "It's just -- it's never killed anybody and we as staff sergeants rant and rave -- but it's not -- it doesn't seem to be heard higher up -- nothing was said or done about it."
Three weeks before Faley's death, in fact, an inbound strike fighter had mistakenly bombed the observation post -- in broad daylight. No one was hurt. Authorities ordered the roof on the observation tower painted white with a red cross, to distinguish it from the target, a cluster of vehicles 1.2 miles away.
Somehow, the Udairi Range board decided, Zimmerman mistook the observation tower for the target and dropped his bombs, without being cleared by the ground controllers as required. Besides Faley, the blast and shrapnel killed four American soldiers and a New Zealand officer. The 11 wounded included Crusing.
The carnage was the result of "human error," the board concluded. And closed the books.
Zimmerman exercised his right not to testify, but did give a voluntary verbal statement "indicating he was deeply saddened." The board amassed hundreds of documents and statements in its effort to understand how one of the nation's most senior pilots could make such a blunder.
But that material is locked away, as Sue Faley found when she pleaded repeatedly with the Navy to help her understand how and why her son was killed.
Eighteen months after Jason's death, she received a letter from the U.S. Central Command rejecting her plea for more information about the incident.
"Dear Ms. Faley," the letter read. "After a thorough review of the requested information, we have determined ... (it) is properly classified in accordance with executive order 12958, section 1.5(a) and (g) and therefore exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 50 U.S.C.552(b) and DoD 5400.7-r, paragraph C184.108.40.206.
"Release of this information could damage the national security and pose a danger to the safety of forces involved in future operations. ...
"Please accept my condolences regarding the death of your son."
(Signed) Michael P. DeLong, Lieutenant General, United States Marine Corps and Deputy Commander in Chief, United States Central Command.
DeLong did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Zimmerman was relieved of squadron command and retired last August. He could not be located for comment.
"They're not going to give me any answers, I am resigned to that," Sue Faley says in a flat voice. "I have lost a lot of respect for our government."
What the classified documents reveal, according to an internal Navy assessment by a frustrated Navy captain, a veteran F-18 pilot, are "systemic close air support failures."
The Defense Department denied permission for the officer to speak on the record.
"To my knowledge," the officer wrote 17 months after the Udairi Range accident, "the changes necessary to fundamentally improve these deficiencies were never taken -- another missed opportunity.
"The pattern is, we go kill a bunch of people, we have an investigation, nothing happens. Then we kill another bunch of people, and usually, they shoot the lowest possible person in the career head and nothing is addressed in the fundamental underlying problem."
The military has a documented propensity to blame pilots for "human error," or what pilots call the "fat finger" problem of hitting the wrong switch.
Others, however, blame the command-and-control system, the enormously complex means of gathering, analyzing and distributing information on targets. Moreover, there is evidence that all the data streaming into strike aircraft are testing the crews' ability to focus.
In Bosnia a few years ago a Navy F-18 mistakenly dropped a 500-pound guided bomb just outside a military barracks packed with U.S. troops. Investigators said the pilot was "an experienced and highly trained aviator," a test pilot and combat veteran. But he was too busy ("task-saturated," the investigators concluded) and inadvertently hit the wrong switch.
Beyond these concerns, critics such as Army Lt. Col. Chris Bentley, the 10th Mountain Division's fire control officer during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan last March, say the command-and-control system is too rigid to be much use.
"When there's a bad decision," says systems analyst Mandeles, "it cascades through the whole system -- and bad things happen."
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, an F-15 pilot and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledges that adjustments are needed in "organization, some doctrine, some tactics, techniques and procedures, some technological changes, training, I mean, across that whole gamut of things."
He insists the basic system is sound.
"We are going to have to continue to work that, because war is not a science, it is an art," Myers says. "I think we will be much better in the next potential conflict than we were in Afghanistan."
But critics reject mere polishing.
"We need to stop and do a full accounting of the system and the failures," says the Pentagon-based pilot who was not allowed to speak for attribution. "Because unless we correct this, we open ourselves up to legitimate charges that we are cooking the books, just like Enron did.
"And we're going to kill more people."
That thought also visits Shannon Faley, especially as she thinks fondly of the military's young enlisted people -- those enthusiastic, proud, underpaid and under-recognized kids Jason worked with. She ponders the implicit moral contract among warriors, and the concepts of military command and accountability.
"By failing to uncover every detail of the accident, those responsible are essentially signing the future death certificates of unsuspecting soldiers," she says.
"As the old saying goes, `If we do not learn from our mistakes, then we are destined to repeat them."'