Letter from Washington — From the February 2014 issue

Tunnel Vision

Will the Air Force kill its most effective weapon?

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Early one evening in May 2012, an extraordinary hour-long radio conversation attracted the attention of various listeners among the NATO forces in the Afghan theater. On one end of the conversation were the pilots of two U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack planes, who had been patrolling the eastern province of Paktia, not far from the Pakistani border. They were on call for any ground unit needing “close air support,” a task for which the A-10 was expressly designed.

On the other end was a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), a specialist whose job is to assign and direct air strikes. The JTAC was reporting Troops in Contact (TIC) — meaning that American soldiers were under fire. Although the entire, acronym-sprinkled transmission was on a secure “strike frequency,” such communications can enjoy a wider audience, not only among the crews of other planes in the neighborhood but at various headquarters across the theater and beyond. Such was the case with this particular mission, making it possible to piece together an account of the ensuing tragedy.

After reporting the TIC, the controller, who was inside a base headquarters somewhere in eastern Afghanistan, informed the pilots that the enemy force was a large one and read out a grid coordinate. Reaching the designated spot, however, the pilots reported “no joy” — i.e., no sign of action. They were directed to another grid, and then to a third, with the same result. At the fourth location, the flight leader reported the presence of a farm building. People and animals were visible, he said, but no one with a weapon, nor was there any sign of military activity.

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Illustration by Darrel Rees

The JTAC refused to accept this conclusion. According to one listener, he told the pilots that the ground commander, who was most likely sitting in the same room, “has determined that everybody down there is hostile.” He then ordered them to prepare for a bombing or strafing run for the A-10, whose 30mm cannon is capable of firing 4,200 rounds per minute.

The pilots continued to insist that they could see nothing out of the ordinary, reporting “normal patterns of life.” The JTAC had at least a rough means of confirming this situation: like many other aircraft, the A-10 carries a “targeting pod” under one wing, which in daylight transmits video images of the ground below, and infrared images at night. This video feed is displayed on the plane’s instrument panel and is relayed to the JTAC’s array of LCD screens in his operations center, and frequently to other intelligence centers around the globe.

The pilots, who could fly low and slow close to the target and study it through binoculars, had a much more detailed view. Circling above the mud-brick farm building, they affirmed it to be a “bad target.” Now, however, there was a new voice on the frequency. A B-1 bomber, cruising high above the clouds, was checking in and reporting its position to the JTAC. Originally developed to deliver nuclear bombs to Moscow at supersonic speeds, the 150-ton plane with its four-man crew lacks the A-10’s low-level maneuverability and detailed views from the cockpit. It relies instead on what I am told are crude video displays and instructions from the ground to hit its targets. Yet it is now commonly employed for the same purpose as the A-10: close air support.

As the B-1 broke in with offers to take over the mission, the controller’s voice grew increasingly frustrated. He continued to insist that the farm was a hostile target. Finally, his patience snapped, and as other listeners recall, he again asked the A-10 flight leader if he was willing to prepare for an attack.

“No,” replied the pilot. “No, we’re not.”

The controller addressed the same question to the B-1, which had been privy to the A-10’s ongoing reports.

“Ready to copy,” came the quick, affirmative reply.

Down below, the unwitting objects of all this potent dialogue, a farmer named Shafiullah and his family, were settling in for the night. They would not have understood what it meant when the whine of the A-10s was replaced by the deeper rumble of the huge bomber, which was meanwhile confirming that it had “weaponeered” a mixture of large and small satellite-guided bombs. A few minutes later, the farm building was torn apart by three huge explosions that killed Shafiullah, his wife, and five of their seven children, the youngest of the victims only ten months old. Two other children were wounded but somehow managed to survive.

* Earlier that day, there had in fact been a firefight about two and a half miles from the farm. Gul Khan recalled that his truck had been stopped at a military roadblock during the fighting and that the skirmish had ended at least four hours before the bombs were dropped.

This obliteration of almost an entire family drew some attention in the media, though reporters had no idea of the real circumstances of the attack. NATO claimed that a ground patrol had come under heavy fire by more than twenty insurgents and had asked for close air support. “We are trying to determine whether the mission has any direct correlation to the claims of civilian casualties,” a NATO spokesman told the New York Times. Shafiullah’s relatives meanwhile took their complaints to the Afghan government, which duly investigated and concluded that the dead were neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda but civilians. According to Shafiullah’s brother, Gul Khan, the Americans then admitted that the family had been killed by accident. Both the U.S. ambassador and the military commander “shared their condolences and asked for forgiveness,” he told me — but the promised compensation never arrived.*

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy.

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