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Commander Testifies for Pilots in 'Friendly Fire'

Two aviators accused in Afghanistan bombing were not given enough information, he says.

January 19, 2003|From Associated Press

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — Information on allied troop locations in Afghanistan was "basically nonexistent" for U.S. pilots last spring, when two Air Force pilots mistakenly bombed Canadian soldiers, killing four, the aviators' former squadron commander testified Saturday.

Col. David Nichols said he told his superiors before the April 17 bombing that he was concerned his fighter pilots were ill-informed about coalition troop locations.

"My concern was that my guys ... needed to know where [allied ground troops] were," he said. "One of the biggest concerns in any mission is where the friendlies are and where the enemy is."

Nichols testified for the defense in a military hearing to determine whether Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach should be court-martialed for dropping a 500-pound bomb on the Canadian infantry soldiers, eight of whom were wounded.

The Illinois National Guard pilots are charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty, and face up to 64 years in a military prison if convicted.

An Air Force investigation found that Schmidt, who dropped the bomb, and Umbach, who commanded the mission, recklessly attacked unidentified troops instead of waiting to determine if they were allies.

Earlier Saturday, Lt. Col. Richard Anderson II, who was in charge of all coalition pilots' combat orders, said Schmidt and Umbach were in no danger and were under "extremely tight" restrictions on weapon use. Standard procedure would have been to evade surface-to-air fire, Anderson said.

However, Anderson indicated under cross-examination that he was unaware that Schmidt had been briefed that Taliban forces possessed rocket launchers powerful enough to put Umbach's F-16 in danger.

On a videotape taken from Schmidt's F-16, a flight controller can be heard saying "hold fire" after Schmidt requested permission to fire his cannons toward gunfire on the ground.

Four seconds later, Schmidt said he was "rolling in, in self-defense." He dropped the guided bomb 39 seconds later.

Nichols testified that Schmidt's behavior was reasonable and called him "one of the best F-16 pilots I've ever seen."

Under cross-examination, Nichols indicated he has received a letter of reprimand because of the bombing.

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