A B-1B Lancer similar to this one dropped two bombs on a ridgeline where five American soldiers and one Afghan soldier were located. All were killed in the friendly fire incident in June. / Master Sgt. Ben Bloker, U.S. Air Force
A friendly fire incident that killed five American soldiers and one Afghan soldier in June
who called in an airstrike from a B-1B Lancer, according to an accident investigation report released Thursday.
A team of U.S. and Afghan soldiers was providing security for the Afghan runoff elections on June 9 in the area of Arghandab when one of the teams came under attack. During the attack, key leaders, including an Air Force joint terminal attack controller and the ground force commander, mixed up friendly and enemy locations and incorrectly believed that the bomber's targeting system could identify friendly locations.
"The key members executing the close air support mission collectively failed to effectively execute the fundamentals, which resulted in poor situational awareness and improper target identification" Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigan, the U.S. Central Command investigating officer, wrote in the report. "While this complex combat situation presented a challenging set of circumstances, had the team understood their system's capabilities, executed standard tactics, techniques and procedures and communicated effectively, this tragic incident was avoidable."
Killed in the airstrike were Staff Sgt. Jason McDonald, Staff Sgt. Scott Studenmund, Spc. Justin Helton, Cpl. Justin Cloust, Pvt. Aaron Topped and Afghan National Army Sgt. Gulbuddin Ghulam Sakhi.
The team of coalition forces was operating in the Gaza Valley of Zabul Province.On June 9, the team was attacked with small arms fire. They returned fire until it stopped.
When the operation ended, the coalition troops moved toward pre-planned extraction points. They broke into three teams. The joint terminal attack controller and the ground force commander were together one location, the report states. The controller had served multiple combat deployments, and had supported Special Forces missions before, according to the report.
From an altitude of about 12,000 feet, the B-1 bomber was providing what the military calls close air support while U.S. and Afghan ground troops were moving out of the area at the conclusion of their operation.
The six soldiers who were killed had moved from their group's main position in a valley to higher ground on a ridgeline in order to maneuver on insurgent forces. Muzzle flashes seen at their position on the ridgeline were mistaken for signs of rifle fire from insurgents, in part because the movement of the six was not properly communicated to those coordinating with the B-1 crew. And when the B-1 crew said their targeting pods had detected no U.S. marking devices at that location it was decided that targets must by insurgents.
Twenty-one minutes later, two bombs from the B-1 landed on the ridgeline. The team of six was still at the position, and none of them survived the strike.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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