Springfield State Journal Register

June 29, 2002

U.S., Canada agree on blame 
Both say local pilots responsible for bombing accident 

Copley News Service


WASHINGTON — Two Springfield-based F-16 pilots violated the rules of engagement in a "friendly fire" bombing in Afghanistan that killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded eight others, the U.S. and Canadian military reported Friday.

The pilots, Maj. Harry Schmidt of Sherman, who dropped the fatal bomb, and his superior, Maj. William Umbach of Petersburg, both members of the Air National Guard’s 183rd Fighter Wing, reportedly were not aware that a Canadian unit was engaged in a live-fire exercise in the area, according to both Canadian officials and a lawyer for one of the pilots.

However, Schmidt allegedly disobeyed an order from an aerial surveillance aircraft to hold his fire, U.S. investigators said.

The finding by the two boards that investigated the April 17 tragedy is likely to lead to some form of disciplinary action, which could include a general court martial, against Schmidt and Umbach.

The U.S. board also cited as contributing factors "failings within the pilots’ immediate command," which could result in some punitive action against senior officers of the Capital Airport-based fighter wing.

Neither the American investigation, announced at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., nor the separate Canadian inquiry, revealed in Ottawa, named the pilots. But they have been identified as Schmidt and Umbach. 

Neither pilot has spoken to reporters since the incident. No one answered the door Friday at Schmidt’s home or at Umbach’s. Col. Robert Murphy, commander of the 183rd, also declined to comment on the reports.

But Air Force Capt. James Key, Schmidt’s lawyer, said in a statement that his client believes he followed the correct procedures and was acting to protect his life and Umbach’s.

The initiation of possible punitive action will prolong what has been a painful incident both for the Canadians, who are seeking some reason for the biggest loss of life in their military since the Korean War, and the U.S. military, which must explain how its vaunted high-tech force made such a tragic mistake.

As described by both of the national reports, the incident occurred while a company of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was conducting a nighttime live-fire training exercise at the Tarnak Farms Range, a former Al Qaeda training camp near Kandahar.

The two F-16s were returning from a long combat patrol over Afghanistan and were passing near Kandahar when the flight leader — Umbach — reported seeing "what he described as fireworks," the U.S. statement said.

"Perceiving this as surface-to-air fire, the flight lead asked and received permission from an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft" to determine the geographic coordinates of the fire.

"While attempting to obtain the coordinates, the wingman [Schmidt] requested permission to fire on the location with his 20mm cannon," the statement continued.

The AWACS told Schmidt to provide some additional information and to "hold fire."

The wingman provided the requested information "and immediately declared that he was ‘rolling-in in self-defense,’" the statement said.

Schmidt dropped a single 500-pound, laser-guided bomb on the site of some of the ground fire, inflicting the casualties on the unsuspecting Canadian soldiers. The two pilots then returned to their base.

The American-led board "found the cause of the friendly fire incident to be the failure of the two pilots to exercise appropriate flight discipline, which resulted in a violation of the rules of engagement and an inappropriate use of lethal force."

Rules of engagement are the written instructions from the senior commanders in a combat zone to guide when their forces may use their weapons. U.S. service members are expected to know and follow the ROEs.

The Canadian board concluded that "the pilots’ actions were not consistent with either the expected practice for a defensive threat reaction or the existing published procedures. This represented a failure of airmanship and technique. Furthermore, their actions contravened the published commander’s direction."

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, has accepted those conclusions and referred the matter to his Air Force commander for possible disciplinary action against the pilots and their superiors, the Central Command’s deputy commander, Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong, said in

Franks forwarded the report to all his commanders "to review the safety and operational efficiency suggestions of the board and to ensure that the lessons learned are incorporated into future operations," DeLong added.

In a news conference linked by video to the Pentagon, DeLong declined to provide any details from the investigation beyond the brief prepared statement.

He repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether Schmidt and Umbach had been briefed beforehand about the Canadian live-fire exercise.

But the Canadians, who consistently have been much more open about the inquiry than the Americans, said "the F-16 pilots involved were not aware of the Tarnak Farms . . . nor the planned live-fire exercise."

Key said the same thing in his statement and added: "It is very likely no one involved in the air war that night knew the exercise was under way. The area itself was not well known to coalition pilots."

That fact could become a factor in any criminal action against the two pilots.

It was not clear from the reports why the pilots did not know of the live-fire exercise — especially because the Canadian report emphasizes that Canadian military officials had properly notified their U.S. allies.

Key also said his client "followed the proper defensive procedures in place at the time. He believed that his and the other pilot’s lives were at stake and he took defensive action."

But the Canadian board noted that "although visible from the air, the armament being employed (by the Canadians) was of no threat to the aircraft at their transit altitude."

Retired Gen. Maurice Baril, who led the Canadian inquiry, said Canadian investigators could not compel the American pilots to appear before the board. 

"We certainly would have loved to have the pilots or the pilot in front of us personally to talk to him," Baril said at a news conference in Ottawa.

"The pilot did answer some written questions that we put to him, so we did have contact," Baril added.

A New York Times story based on leaks from the inquiry said the F-16s were flying at 23,000 feet, which is well above the effective range of all but the most powerful anti-aircraft artillery or surface-to-air missiles. And those are easily identified if fired.

That fact could work against the pilots’ claim of self-defense in any disciplinary hearing.

DeLong refused to comment on what disciplinary action might result from Franks’ referral of the case to Lt. Gen. Michael Mosely, the commander of Air Force units in Central Command.

Under normal procedures, Mosely would appoint a senior officer, possibly a military lawyer, to conduct an Article 32 investigation, somewhat similar to a civilian grand jury.

That investigation, in which the two pilots would be present with their lawyers, would produce a recommendation to Mosely for possible further action. That could range from administrative steps, such as critical letters in the pilots’ official records, which would harm their careers, or removal from flight status permanently or for some period of time, to punitive action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, up to a general court martial.

A court martial could reduce the pilots in rank, remove them from the service or put them in prison. But a prison sentence would be unusual in a case apparently involving bad judgment rather than intent.

The Article 32 process could take a month or more. Its results should be announced once Mosely decides what action he will take.

Otto Kreisher writes for Copley News Service in Washington. Lisa Kernek is a staff writer who can be reached at 788-1459 or lisa.kernek@sj-r.com.