October 15, 2011. Washington. The just-released report detailing the Pentagon investigation of the friendly fire deaths of two US Marines in Afghanistan six month ago reveals serious short-comings in the unmanned Predator weapon’s systems. Eerily reminiscent of the 1993 battle in Somalia which was detailed in the movie Blackhawk Down, Pentagon findings show a slow, cumbersome and illogical standard operating procedure. The result being the tragic and unnecessary deaths of two heroic US Marines at the hands of computer operators half a world away.
Navy Hospitalman Benjamin D. Rast, 23 (L) and Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26 (R), killed in friendly fire US Predator drone attack in Afghanistan. Photo compliments of MilitaryTimes.com
The Pentagon’s 381 page report is classified as ‘Secret’ and hasn’t been officially released. Yesterday however, the Los Angeles Times published excerpts from the critical document.
On April 6th of this year, Marines were under constant attack by Afghan rebel forces outside the small town of Sangin in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. At 8:51am local time, US Marines based in Houston, Texas became engaged in a fierce firefight with enemy units stationed inside a string of small buildings only 200 yards from their unprotected position. While the Marine platoon took immediate cover behind a canal embankment, unmanned Predator drone aircraft were routed to the scene at the request of the Marine Platoon’s officers on the ground.
That order triggered the standard operating procedure for a drone attack in this situation.
From Nevada, a Predator drone pilot took the controls of the unmanned aircraft. Just like playing a video game, the USAF pilot used his controllers to steer the drone to the Marines’ position. While the drone pilot used the craft’s mounted infrared camera to spot individuals on the ground from his desk in Nevada, Air Force analysts were watching a different video feed from the Predator drone in their offices in Terre Haute, Indiana.
With their air support now on the scene and unable to see the buildings being used by the insurgents from their position, three US soldiers moved forward to visually confirm the destruction of the insurgent position. There the three soldiers, Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Navy Hospitalman Benjamin D. Rast, 23, as well as an unnamed Marine, took cover behind a hedgerow where they exchanged fire with the enemy forces inside the buildings.
With the three US soldiers now dug-in just in front of the main US position, and in between them and the insurgents, commanders in charge on the other side of the planet couldn’t immediately tell if the three were friendlies or enemy combatants.
The drone pilot in Nevada picked up the Americans’ gunfire and heat signatures with the infrared camera, but couldn’t decipher much more than the position, number of individuals and confirmation of gunfire. From the Air Force analysts’ offices in Indiana, observers decided the gunfire of the three individuals was, “oriented to the west, away from friendly forces." Since the fire was directed at the insurgent position and away from the main US position, the analysts agreed the three were ‘friendlies’.
Rather than communicate via a real-time audio radio system, or even telephone, the Air Force analysts in Indiana and the Predator drone pilot in Nevada used a slow, typed, internet-style chat room to communicate back and forth with each other.
While the Air Force analysts in Indiana had confirmed they believed the three soldiers were ‘friendlies’, the Pentagon investigation shows that for some reason, they didn’t let the USAF drone pilot or the US Marines on the ground know that. The report even found that at one point, the analysts in Indiana did type that the three were ‘friendlies’”. But seconds later, they changed ‘friendlies’ to ‘Unable to discern who personnel were’. The Pentagon report shows no sign that the analysts ever changed their suspicions about the three and doesn’t speculate whey the analysts changed their type-written description.
When the drone pilot set his sights on his target, he announced, “Time of flight 17 seconds”. Within seconds and obviously seeing something drastically amiss, a Marine frantically radioed his urgent warning of, “the wrong building”. Seconds later, the American Predator drone pilot from his controls in Nevada attacked the three US soldiers with a Hellfire Missile killing Staff Sgt. Smith and Navy Medic Rast.
The Pentagon investigation appeared to lay the blame for the friendly fire deaths on four specific individuals – the Mission Intelligence Coordinator charged with informing the pilot of the analysts’ findings, and three Marine officers in command on the ground at the scene.
The report found that when the gunfire of the three ‘unknown combatants’ was confirmed to be aimed at the insurgent position, that information was not relayed to either the Predator drone pilot or to the Marine Platoon commander on the ground. Rather than fault the operating procedures, communication system or the Air Force analysts, the report laid the blame for the tragic accident at the feet of the Marine commander on the ground. The report declared that the friendly fire drone attack “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.”