'Friendly Fire' Deaths Vex the US Military ; Air Force Pill Policy and Rules of Engagement May Factor into Prosecution of Two Pilots

By Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

'Friendly Fire' Deaths Vex the US Military ; Air Force Pill Policy and Rules of Engagement May Factor into Prosecution of Two Pilots


Brad Knickerbocker writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As the US moves closer to war with Iraq, a tragic episode in Afghanistan eight months ago sets the scene for what could be some of the toughest issues the American military may have to deal with.

Last April, two Illinois National Guard pilots on active duty flying F-16 jets with the Air Force accidentally bombed Canadian infantry soldiers conducting a night exercise near Kandahar, killing four and wounding eight.

They have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, assault, and dereliction of duty, charges that could mean up to 64 years in prison. The military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, determining whether they should be court martialed, begins next week at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

The specifics of the case are fairly clear-cut. Headed back to base from a long but uneventful mission, the two pilots - Maj. Bill Umbach and Maj. Harry Schmidt - thought they saw enemy fire coming their way. Major Schmidt rolled in on the target, dropping a laser- guided 500-pound bomb that landed just three feet from a Canadian machine-gun crew. A Pentagon investigation determined that both pilots (Major Umbach was the senior of the two) exhibited "reckless" behavior and violated rules of engagement in not getting permission to fire from air controllers who - a moment too late - warned that "Kandahar has friendlies."

But the broader issues are more difficult:

* The Air Force policy of issuing amphetamines to pilots flying repeated long-range, exhausting missions. Both pilots had taken the drug an hour before the accident. Many Air Force pilots in Afghanistan take these "go pills," as was the case during the Gulf War, despite the dangers of addiction and such adverse side effects as aggressiveness and paranoia. Air Force officials say the pills are taken voluntarily and in small, safe doses.

* What seem to be increasing incidents of allied deaths and injuries caused by "friendly fire." Nearly a quarter of the US and allied casualties in the Gulf War were from friendly fire, and there have been several such instances in Afghanistan.

* The balance between encouraging individual initiative on the battlefield by US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines versus rashness and overaggression. Some officers, as well as military reformers, say there needs to be more such initiative. Making one mistake, however, can quickly end one's career.

* A military justice system that critics say sometimes focuses on lower-level officers and enlisted men and women without addressing such things as the command environment or the "rules of engagement" made by those higher up the chain of command.

Focus of investigation

"There's a raft of issues here that go beyond the factual," says Eugene Fidell, a former military lawyer who now heads the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington. …

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