By lex, on October 14th, 2011
A Marine and a Navy medic killed by a U.S. drone airstrike were targeted when Marine commanders in Afghanistan mistook them for Taliban fighters, even though analysts watching the Predator’s video feed were uncertain whether the men were part of an enemy force.
Those are the findings of a Pentagon investigation of the first known case of friendly fire deaths involving an unmanned aircraft, the April 6 attack that killed Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Navy Hospitalman Benjamin D. Rast, 23.
The 381-page report, which has not been released, concludes that the Marine officers on the scene and the Air Force crew controlling the drone from half a world away were unaware that analysts watching the firefight unfold via live video at a third location had doubts about the targets’ identity…
Smith, Rast and another Marine had separated from the others and had taken cover behind a hedgerow, where they were firing on insurgents in a cluster of nearby buildings.
Infrared cameras on the Predator overhead had picked up heat signatures of the three men and detected muzzle flashes as they fired their weapons at insurgents.
Air Force analysts who were watching the live video in Terre Haute, Indiana, noted that the gunfire appeared aimed away from the other Marines, who were behind the three. The analysts reported that gunshots were “oriented to the west, away from friendly forces,” the Pentagon report says.
But the Predator pilot in Nevada and the Marine commanders on the ground “were never made aware” of the analysts’ assessment.
It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I have consistently believed that, despite all of the hoopla surrounding UAVs and the enthusiasm for ridding the skies of manned strike fighters, when troops are in contact and the enemy is danger close, you want the guy dropping the bomb sharing the same battlespace as the guys he’s protecting. On the same frequency, oriented to the same threats. Hearing their voices.
This is not to say that there have never been friendly fire casualties using manned close air support: There have, too many. One is too many.
But there is a certain moral weight that attaches to being the guy above the fight, keenly aware while talking to living people engaged in it, that his efforts could either make things much better, or far worse.
No stateside analysts. No battalion TOCs. Just the guys on the ground, hard pressed. And the guy up above them, desperate to make the right call.
And the certain knowledge of everything that hangs in the balance.