Toronto Star September 14, 2002
American pilots disobeyed orders, Pentagon says
By William Walker
Two U.S. Air National Guard pilots, charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, disobeyed orders, lacked discipline and exercised poor judgment, the Pentagon says.
Maj. Harry Schmidt, who dropped the single laser-guided 227-kilogram bomb that caused the tragedy, and Maj. William Umbach, his flight commander that night in a second F-16 fighter jet, were each charged yesterday with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, representing the four Canadians killed. Each was also charged with eight counts of assault, relating to eight Canadian soldiers wounded.
Four members of the Edmonton-based Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were killed: Sgt. Marc Leger, Pte. Nathan Smith, Pte. Richard Green and Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer. The charges grow out of recommendations in the report, released yesterday, of the U.S.-convened Coalition Investigation Board into the incident near Kandahar in the early hours of April 18.
"These charges are only accusations," said a Pentagon official who asked not to be named. "Both officers are presumed innocent."
There was no political reaction yesterday in the United States to what most U.S. media treated as a minor story. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers was asked about the case by a Canadian reporter at a public event. He called the investigation report "excellent" but said he couldn't comment with charges pending.
The coalition report, co-authored by Brig.-Gen. Stephen T. Sargeant of the U.S. Air Force and Canadian Brig.-Gen. Marc Dumais, concluded there was clear evidence the pilots had violated the rules of engagement and resorted to inappropriate use of lethal force.
Making matters even worse for the subsequent investigation, the flight recorders on both pilots' F-16s were not downloaded when they returned to their Kuwaiti air base. They continued to record and the data from the accident was "overwritten" by the flight recorder.
The question of what to do about the charges now lies in the hands of Lt.-Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the U.S. 8th Air Force. He can dismiss the charges, prosecute the men in a general court-martial, or convene what the military calls a special court-martial.
If he chooses the latter, Schmidt, 37, and Umbach, 43, would face up to six months in jail and bad conduct discharges from the air force, according to Maj. Ted Wadsworth, a Pentagon spokesman.
If convicted on all counts in a general court-martial, each could be sentenced to a maximum of 64 years in confinement and forfeit all pay and allowances.
Schmidt was also charged with failing to exercise appropriate flight discipline and not complying with the rules of engagement in Afghanistan.
Nicknamed "Psycho" by his Air Force comrades, Schmidt of Springfield, Ill., is a "star" within the force, having been a Top Gun flight school instructor. He was supposed to be under the command that night of Umbach, known in the Air Force as an "average pilot," the report said.
It appears that as a senior and much decorated pilot, Schmidt had little regard that night for Umbach, his flight commander, and the report blames Umbach for not reining in Schmidt.
"For some time, (Schmidt) had logged virtually all of his flying hours as instructor time," the report said. "It is likely that he did not consider (Umbach) who was reported by peers as an average pilot, as an authority or as an expert in this situation. Thus, only a strongly authoritative call (from Umbach to hold fire) would have been likely to capture his attention. As it stands, that call did not come."
The breakdown in flight discipline took place when Schmidt mistook flashes from the Canadian soldiers' live ammunition exercise on the ground as anti-aircraft fire, known as SAFIRE (surface-to-air fire). A flight controller in an Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft ordered the F-16 pilots to hold their fire while the controllers got more information on the reported ground fire.
It was Umbach's job to order Schmidt to reconsider his assumption of enemy fire, but he failed to do so, the report said. Schmidt's mistakes included turning his plane away from Umbach's, in violation of U.S. Air Force rules, to target the source of the fire. He also broke rules by flying lower than the ceiling allowed for F-16 jets in Afghanistan.
The report noted that mistaken reports of SAFIRE were common in Afghanistan. The Star reported last month that there were 18 such reported cases in the four weeks prior to the April accident.
Schmidt and Umbach should have taken normal defensive moves in their F-16s, the report said - in essence, simply flying out of harm's way. Instead, Schmidt flew lower to engage what he thought was the enemy.
Schmidt told investigators in a written statement - both pilots refused to be interviewed - that he believed he was bombing an enemy ground position. He said he fired in self-defence, but the investigation centred around whether he was given permission to fire on the target.
Umbach was also charged with failing to exercise appropriate flight command and control and to ensure compliance with rules of engagement, for his failure to order Schmidt to wait for clearance to drop the bomb.
In one of the report's most shocking findings, it said that most mistaken SAFIRE reports by pilots take about five minutes for AWACS planes, flying air control units, to investigate and tell the pilot the target is friendly forces. But Schmidt dropped his bomb within two minutes of first reporting the ground fire.
Among the details released in the Coalition Investigation Board report was that both pilots had taken amphetamines - provided by the military - shortly before Schmidt dropped the bomb on the Canadian troops, who were conducting nighttime training exercises.
Both Canadian and U.S. reports on the April 18 incident released yesterday concluded the so-called "go pills" did not directly cause the accident. But the U.S. report criticized Schmidt and Umbach's commanders for not keeping track of or reporting amphetamine use.
It states: "Finding 10: The 332nd Air Expeditionary Group was not managing and monitoring go pill usage (according to) United States Air Force directives. Recommendation: Commanders ensure compliance with directives governing go pill use."
It's not known how much of the stimulant the two had taken, how long or how often they were using the drug banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Prolonged use has been proven to lead to "amphetamine psychosis," which causes hallucinations and paranoid delusions.
The report also stated that both pilots, members of the Illinois Air National Guard 183rd unit based in Springfield, Ill., had complained about the 24-hour mission time frames, which include pre-flight briefings and post-flight de-briefing.
"With all factors taken together, insidious fatigue serves to amplify the potential for misperceptions along with errors in decision-making and performance," the report concluded.
As The Star first reported Aug. 1, pilots are routinely given the stimulant Dexedrine, generically known as dextroamphetamine, to stay alert during long combat missions. To sleep when they return to base, pilots are given "no go pills," or sleeping pills, called Ambien (zolpidem) and Restoril (temazepam). Both Schmidt and Umbach were also using these pills to get rest.
John Pike, a military analyst with the Washington-based think tank Globalsecurity.org, said the report's key finding that amphetamine use was not properly monitored raises important questions.
"I think the existing guidelines for amphetamine use are surprisingly tolerant and permissive," Pike said in an interview. "I continue to think that the behaviour of the pilots looks like these drugs were potentially a contributing factor."
Schmidt and Umbach had been cleared for amphetamine use that night because their 14-hour mission would exceed the U.S. Air Force guideline allowing for the drug's use, which is any assignment of more than eight hours.
Umbach had taken 5 mg of dexadrine two hours before the incident, while Schmidt had taken 10 mg at midnight, less than an hour before dropping the bomb, the report said. "The co-ordination and approval process was not documented as required by ACC (Air Combat Control), nor did they forward required weekly go pill use reports," yesterday's report found.
Umbach began his day around 10: 30 a.m. (local time) when he awoke, did some laundry, and ate lunch. At 1: 20 p.m., he visited the medical clinic and requested and was prescribed go and no-go pills, the report said.
Schmidt awoke at 7 a.m. and later took a nap beginning at 12: 30 p.m., until he awoke to attend a pilot meeting. At 3 p.m. both attended the meeting that included a discussion of an unsuccessful bombing mission they'd been on the previous day, when they'd missed the target.
The report found that the anxiety over that meeting may have contributed to both pilots paying little attention to the pre-flight briefing before they took off.
Among the ironies to emerge in yesterday's report was that the commander of the AWACs unit directly involved in the incident was an unnamed major from the Canadian Forces. He was supervising two U.S. Forces officers also involved.
While the report didn't directly blame the AWACs air controllers for failing to tell Schmidt and Umbach the target was comprised of friendly forces on a training exercise, it did recommend better information sharing about such training.
During the incident, Schmidt thought the Canadian soldiers were firing at the two F-16s. But the report found the Canadians were firing their weapons "parallel to the ground" and that even bullet ricochets would not have come close to the jets. By the time the bomb was dropped, the Canadians were out of ammunition.
At first, Schmidt asked for permission to unload cannon fire (rapid-fire bullets) on the target. He was told to hold fire. Later, when he declared "self-defence," he dropped the laser-guided bomb, which the report found was too much heavy artillery for such a small target.
It took only 38 seconds after Schmidt's bomb struck the Canadians for the AWACS to conclude they were friendly troops. The controller immediately radioed to Umbach to "get him (Schmidt) out of there."
Canadians Leger, Dyer, Green and Smith took a direct hit and died immediately, the report said. It took 27 minutes for a Blackhawk helicopter to arrive at the scene to help the eight wounded.
The report also found the weather was clear that night, with very little cloud or dust to obscure the pilots' vision. Both pilots were using night-vision goggles.
Charles Gittins, Schmidt's Virginia-based lawyer, told The Star last night that the charges could lead to increased fatalities in Afghanistan among U.S. and allied pilots who may now hesitate before defending themselves.
Copyright 2002 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.