Springfield State Journal Register

September 21, 2002

Air Guard leaders under scrutiny 
Role in 183rd incident questioned 


WASHINGTON - Was the "friendly-fire" incident that killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan the tragic result of a history of weak leadership in the Illinois Air National Guard, including the Springfield-based squadron involved in the fatal bombing?

At least one critic believes so. And the Air Force's analysis of the accident suggests that view might be correct.

The Air Force investigation of the April 17 incident decided that the "lack of clearly defined squadron leadership roles and responsibilities" in the 170th Fighter Squadron was a "substantial contributing factor" to the mistaken bombing, although not the direct cause of the attack.

The investigation concluded that the ultimate causes were errors in
judgment and violations of flying rules by two of the squadron's pilots - Maj. Harry Schmidt of Sherman and Maj. William Umbach of Petersburg. They face the prospect of military criminal trials that could send them to prison.

A 65-page report by the investigating team, however, documented
numerous leadership failures in the squadron and in the 332nd Air
Expeditionary Group of the regular Air Force, which commanded the fighter squadron during its combat tour.

The "ineffective leadership" and "ambiguous command structure" cited in the report apparently set the stage for the deadly attack on friendly forces.

The leader of the investigation recommended that the commander of the 332nd, Air Force Col. David C. Nichols, receive disciplinary action, which could end his career.

So far, there is no indication that anyone in the Illinois Air Guard senior to Schmidt and Umbach will be punished, even though the investigation questioned the performance of Col. Robert Murphy, commander of the 170th's parent unit, the 183rd Fighter Wing.

The Illinois National Guard's top officer, Maj. Gen. David Harris, denied last week there are leadership problems in the air guard or the Springfield unit.

"If there are any areas of concern, problems within the unit, we will ensure they are addressed," said Harris, the Illinois adjutant general.

But, he added, "the unit is an experienced, qualified unit. ... Their pilots are experienced, very qualified."

Harris repeatedly insisted that any problems in the 170th during its combat deployment were the Air Force's responsibility, not his.

"Those pilots and the unit were not operating as members of the Illinois National Guard, they were flying as part of the regular Air Force.

"It was the command leadership of that (Air Force) group that needs to be looked at," he said.

Although air guard units called to active duty are under regular Air Force command, a former commander of the 170th said the Illinois guard determined who went to Kuwait and Afghanistan when the 170th was deployed, not the Air Force.

"They sent a totally dysfunctional organization over there," declared retired Lt. Col. Terrence Rogan. "They sent a wing commander (Murphy) trying to get war on his record. He should never have been there."

Rogan, who has criticized the 183rd's leadership in the past, added, "The Illinois Air Guard above the squadron level is crippled" by political influence and cronyism. He cited a rash of flying accidents in the early 1990s by Illinois Air Guard pilots and the fact that officers involved in some of those crashes have been promoted to leadership positions in the state guard.

A former regular Air Force officer said such things happen because "the air guard is like a flying club, a country club with airplanes."

Present and former National Guard officers emphasized the _flying skills that air guard pilots have demonstrated in flying competitions against active-duty fliers and during combat in the Persian Gulf War, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

"There never have been any questions about our capabilities," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, the former director of the Air Guard in the Pentagon.

Weaver and Harris also insisted that guard pilots and ground crews are trained to the same standards and must meet the same qualifications as their active-duty counterparts.

The investigation concluded that Schmidt and Umbach were experienced and qualified F-16 pilots and said the squadron's training for its deployment to the combat zone "was admirable, but it was not adequately documented."

The report also said the pilots had not received refresher training in how to juggle competing demands on their attention in stressful flying conditions. The 183rd had granted waivers for this training, although the report said the refresher training is designed to ensure such skills are "readily available when they are needed, as they were during this incident."

That was just one of the problems the investigation found in the
Springfield squadron.

The squadron, it said, "suffered from a lack of clearly defined squadron leadership roles and responsibilities, contributing to a lack of uniform training and standards for squadron personnel, including the incident flight pilots, before and during combat operations."

The 170th also "failed to establish an adequate squadron mission planning process, resulting in inadequate mission preparation and the lack of an appropriate level of situational awareness by the incident flight."

Part of that lack of "situational awareness" was the failure to inform the two pilots the Canadian soldiers would be conducting live-fire training under their flight path. Schmidt and Umbach reported the Canadian shooting as hostile surface-to-air gunfire. Schmidt dropped a bomb on the allied troops before he could be warned there were "friendlies" in the area.

A key factor in the "ambiguous" leadership in the 170th, the report said, was the fact that, although the squadron officially was commanded by Umbach, two of his pilots, including Murphy, actually were of higher rank. 

As a result, squadron pilots "demonstrated general ambiguity about who was in charge and what leadership positions meant in terms of
responsibility and authority."

The report said Air Force rules prohibit deploying officers senior to the squadron commander to a combat zone, apparently to avoid just such conflicts. That rule can be waived for air guard units, the report said, only if the senior officer deploys as a "line pilot," meaning he is theoretically subordinate to the squadron commander.

Murphy represented himself as the detachment commander, the report said.

Despite Harris' claim that he and his subordinates had no control over who went on the deployment, the report quotes Murphy as saying he and his aides "handpicked members of the wing" for the assignment.

The result, the report said, was that Umbach "exercised little actual
command authority. He was serving as the squadron commander, despite the fact that he had been passed over for promotion to the next higher rank and the belief by his superiors that his promotion potential was minimal."

Rogan said the problems with the 170th during its combat tour were a reflection of the state air guard's leadership being based on political and personal ties rather than military skills.

Weaver insisted that state guard leaders are "not going to send units into harm's way with leadership that is not responsible. They're going to send their best men and women."

Numerous investigations, including a series of articles last year by USA Today, have documented widespread misconduct among senior National Guard officers in many states. Those incidents seldom resulted in punishment from the governors who select those leaders in most states, the newspaper said.

Any weakness in the Air Guard can be a serious problem because of the increased demand for the part-time warriors in the war on terrorism and any future attack on Iraq.