The Air Force said Tuesday that mistakes by its B1-B air crew when they targeted American soldiers did not directly cause the Afghanistan war’s worst case of “friendly fire” fatalities.
On the night of June 9, the crew dropped two 500-pound bombs on what they determined was an enemy position. The strike killed five U.S. soldiers and one Afghan sergeant.
The statement from Air Force Air Combat Command creates a unique — and competing — post-accident conclusion, after an official investigation blamed errors in the bomber and by Green Berets on the ground.
The Air Force now says its men were not to blame. The Army’s top special operations officer in late December cleared two Green Berets cited in the investigation. A Special Forces captain and his top sergeant filed a rebuttal entirely blaming the accident on mistakes made by the B-1B crew.
The brief Air Force statement said the decision was made by the 12th Air Force commander. Lt. Gen. Chris Nowland took command on Dec. 19.
The statement said the commander “took administrative action to remedy mistakes made during the operation. However, it was determined that aircrew procedural miscues did not directly cause the loss of life in this matter.”
The statement further said the bomber’s crew “received administrative actions for their role in the accident.”
It did not specify the actions taken. A spokesman did not reply to queries.
The official U.S. Central Command investigation by an Air Force two-star general laid blame all around. The investigation faulted the two Green Berets on issues such as a faulty radio, not enough pre-mission rehearsal and lack of full situational awareness during the fire fight.
Special operations sources dismissed those findings, saying the sole cause of the accident was the B-1B crew not knowing how their sensors worked. And, they say, the Air Force air controller on the ground provided the crew wrong information.
That June 9 night, the Green Berets, conventional soldiers and Afghan security forces had completed a clearing operation of Taliban and were awaiting helicopter rides back to base.
The team came under fire. The B-1B crew, which had not been briefed that they would be asked to drop bombs, was alerted to provide close-air support, or CAS.
The Americans were wearing infrared strobes that designated them as friendly.
The B-1B crew saw no infrared signal on its high-definition sniper pod and thus concluded the source of muzzle flashes must be the enemy. Tragically, the crew did not know the pod had no technical ability to see the strobe. They assured the controller on the ground that they could see strobes, but saw none.
Compounding that mistake, a pilot searched for any strobes, using his night vision goggles, which do have the capability to see strobes. But the B-1B was flying a 5-mile orbit, at 12,000 feet, and thus outside the goggles’ range.
Killed were Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald, Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund, Spec. Justin Helton, Cpl. Justin Clouse and Pvt. Aaron Toppen.
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