Letter from Washington — From the February 2014 issue

Tunnel Vision

Will the Air Force kill its most effective weapon?

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The death of the Shafiullah family might easily be one more addition to the sad roster of CIVCAS, as the military calls the civilian victims of our post-9/11 wars. It fits what has become a traditional pattern: a fatal strike elicits an official denial, followed by concession of responsibility (sometimes grudging and partial, and sometimes accompanied by an offer of compensation), followed by a pledge to mandate stricter procedures. But the events of this particular evening are worth further examination, for they tell us a lot about the way our military operates these days.

The A-10 pilots were able to make a detailed, independent judgment about the target because their aircraft was designed for that very purpose. Its bulletproof armor, along with other features such as reinforced fuel tanks, meant the plane could fly low without fear of enemy ground fire. On the other hand, no one was going to risk a lumbering, $300 million B-1 within easy range of rifles and machine guns, let alone thread it through narrow mountain valleys. (By contrast, the inflation-adjusted price tag for an A-10 is about $20 million.) Confined to high altitudes, and limited by its huge wingspan and turning radius, the B-1 is precluded from close observation of the ground below. Like our fleet of thin-skinned supersonic fighter jets — and like drone operators — it must rely largely on video.

The consequences are frequently bloody. In May 2009, bombs from a B-1 killed at least 140 men, women, and children in Farah, Afghanistan, because the pilot, according to the Pentagon’s own explanation, “had to break away from positive identification of its targets” — i.e., he couldn’t see what he was bombing. Other mass CIVCAS incidents in the same conflict, such as those in Kunduz (ninety-one dead) and Herat (ninety-two dead), can be traced to the same fatal dependence on video-screen images rather than the human eye.

Video will often supply a false clarity to preconceived notions. One A-10 pilot described to me an afternoon he spent circling high over southern Afghanistan in May 2010, watching four people — tiny figures on his cockpit screen — clustering at the side of a road before they retreated across a field toward a house. Everything about their movements suggested a Taliban I.E.D.-laying team. Then the door to the house opened and a mother emerged to hustle her children in to supper.

“On the screen,” he explained, “the only way to tell a child from an adult is when they are standing next to each other. Otherwise everyone looks the same.”

“We call the screens face magnets,” remarked another veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Billy Smith, a former A-10 squadron commander who flew tours over Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “They tend to suck your face into the cockpit, so you don’t pay attention to what’s going on outside.”

Smith recalled a 2003 night mission in pursuit of a Taliban contingent close to the Pakistani border: “We were looking for them under the weather in a deep, narrow valley, with steep mountains going up to fifteen thousand feet. Suddenly I saw a glow from a fire in a cave on the side of the mountain and called the ground commander.” Smith was immediately cleared to attack the cave. Yet he still wasn’t sure he had located the enemy. “So with my wingman covering me, I put my plane on its side,” he told me, “and flew along the mountain so I was looking straight up through the top of my canopy into the cave. Didn’t see anybody. Just to be sure, I turned around and flew back the opposite way, and this time I saw a whole family at the mouth of the cave, waving.”

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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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