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Newsday (New York, NY) December 6, 2001

Killed by Friendly Fire

By Craig Gordon

Washington - Three U.S. soldiers were killed and 20 wounded yesterday when their Special Forces team ordered an air strike against Taliban forces outside Kandahar and a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb instead exploded just 100 yards from the Americans.

The Pentagon is investigating why the bomb - used specifically for its "maximum blast effect," one official said - struck so close to U.S. forces after being dropped from a B-52 bomber north of the Taliban stronghold.

Five Afghans fighting the Taliban also were killed, and several others were wounded. The recently chosen interim leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was injured slightly by the blast while leading troops in the area. It is the second time in about 10 days that a so-called smart bomb caused U.S. casualties. Five U.S. Special Forces troops were injured by a satellite-guided bomb Nov. 26 when they called in bombers to quell a prison riot near Mazar-i-Sharif.

"I, along with the rest of America, grieve for the loss of life in Afghanistan," President George W. Bush said of the U.S. troops. "I want the families to know that they died for a noble and just cause ... and they defend freedom, and for that we are grateful."

The Pentagon last night identified the dead as Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Tennessee; Sgt. First Class Daniel Henry Petithory, 32, of Massachusetts; and Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, 28, of California.

The accident brought to four the number of U.S. combat deaths inside Afghanistan since the campaign began Oct. 7. CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann was killed during a prison riot Nov. 25.

The "JDAM" bomb - or Joint Direct Attack Munitions - travels toward its target with the help of satellite guidance, following a string of coordinates that can be programmed into the weapon with a computer keyboard while the plane is in flight.

Satellite-guided bombs, developed after the Gulf War for more precise targeting especially in bad weather or fog, have been used heavily in the Afghanistan campaign, and this is a particularly powerful one.

"A 2,000-pound weapon is a devastating weapon," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon. "As a pilot, when I would drop a 2,000-pound weapon, I wanted at least 4,000 feet of separation from that weapon when it went off."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said several things could have gone wrong:the troops on the ground calling in the wrong location; coordinates transmitted or received improperly or keyed into the weapon incorrectly; or mechanical problems, perhaps with one of the tailfins used to guide the bomb.

In the friendly fire accident at Mazar-i-Sharif, the satellite-guided bomb went where it had been programmed to go. It had been mistakenly programmed for the location of the men, not the target, a defense official said. U.S. warplanes also have inadvertently bombed some Afghan targets, including food warehouses, but the Pentagon this week disputed claims that its bombs had gone astray in recent days and killed as many as 200 civilians outside Tora Bora.

In yesterday's bombing, two teams of special-operations forces had converged while working with opposition troops north of Kandahar, Stufflebeem said. They were coming under Taliban mortar fire trying to prevent their advance toward Kandahar.

Hoping to suppress the Taliban fire, the Americans ordered an air strike, and the 2,000-pound bomb fell within a football field's length of their position.

CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters from a desert airstrip set up by Marines near Kandahar recovered the wounded Americans and Afghans. The American casualties were then transferred from the airstrip, code-named Rhino, to medical facilities. Two of the U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan, and a third died in transit to an undisclosed medical facility, the Pentagon said.

Some journalists with the Marines in southern Afghanistan complained that they were prevented from photographing or getting close enough to observe the injured troops, including by being confined in a warehouse. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said she would examine how the reporters were handled.

The Special Forces were calling for "close air support," a military term for directing air strikes and other fire on enemy troops to help friendly troops advance. Special Forces teams have been doing this through much of the Afghanistan campaign, and it has been a key reason the Taliban has been routed from much of the country so easily.

Stufflebeem noted, "This is one of the potentially most hazardous type of missions that we use as a military tactic," simply because the air strikes generally are directed at troops in close proximity to friendly forces.

Pentagon officials also said that even with advanced technology, there is no way to make a "perfect" weapon.

"These are human-made, human-designed systems, and therefore, they're going to have flaws that are going to either be built in or that are going to occur. We have not perfected a technology that is perfect in its execution," Stufflebeem said.

In its most accurate mode, the JDAM is designed to hit within 40 feet of its targets. One weapons expert, John Pike, the director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense policy group in Washington, said those specifications are somewhat misleading. Roughly half of the bombs with that capability still would be expected to fall outside that 40-foot radius.

"It's far more accurate than the sort of close air support that would have normally been done at any point in the 20th century," Pike said, but he added, "Nothing's perfect."

He compared it to the global positioning systems now found in some cars, which use satellite coordinates to show locations and give directions. Those systems can't predict mechanical problems that could divert a trip; in much the same way, faulty electronics, a jammed fin and high winds could send this bomb off-course, Pike said.

Also, "if you put the wrong street address into your GPS car system, it will go straight to the wrong house," Pike said. Likewise, if troops program a bomb incorrectly, "you can very precisely hit the wrong target."


Copyright 2001 Newsday, Inc.