Heart of Empire — September 18, 2014, 2:55 pm

Flying Blind

The U.S. air-power lobby, botched bombing missions, and bootless combat.

1st Lt. Joshua Hall of the 34th Bomb Squadron steps out the cockpit of a B-1 bomber before prepping the craft for takeoff on Tuesday at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, SD. © Eric Ginnard/The New York Times/Redux

1st Lt. Joshua Hall of the 34th Bomb Squadron steps out of the cockpit of a B-1 bomber before prepping the craft for takeoff on Tuesday at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, SD. © Eric Ginnard/The New York Times/Redux

President Obama’s war against the Islamic State will represent, by a rough count, the eighth time the U.S. air-power lobby has promised to crush a foe without setting boot or foot on the ground. Yet from World War II to Yemen, the record is clear: such promises have invariably been proven empty and worthless. Most recently, the drone campaign against the Yemeni jihadists has functioned mainly as an effective recruiting tool for the other side, now rapidly growing in strength (and pledging loyalty to the Islamic State).

Such realities, however, are of little concern to the lobby, which measures success in terms of budgets and contracts. Therefore, in assessing progress in the anti-IS crusade, observers should be aware that the choice of weapons and associated equipment being deployed will be dictated by Pentagon politics, not the requirements of the battlefield. Hence the appearance, in late August, of the $300 million B-1 bomber in the skies over Iraq.

Although its advertised function was to carry nuclear weapons to Moscow at supersonic speeds, the B-1 was developed principally to bolster Republican electoral fortunes in California, where it was built. Always a technical disappointment—with a full load of bombs, it cannot climb high enough to cross the Rockies—it has nonetheless been tenderly cherished by the Air Force brass. Like someone finding a job for a down-at-the-heels relative, the service has assigned the B-1 the task of attacking enemy troops and supporting friendly troops on the battlefield, a mission for which it is manifestly unsuited.

Close air support, as it is called, has always been considered a lowly and demeaning task by the Air Force, since it involved cooperation with ground troops. Thus the service is striving mightily to discard the A-10, a plane developed specifically for the job (see my “Tunnel Vision” report from the February issue), while insisting that the lumbering bomber is a perfectly adequate substitute.

In contrast to the A-10, which can maneuver easily at low level, allowing pilots to see with their own eyes what they are shooting at, the B-1 flies high and relies instead on electronic images or map coordinates. Thanks to these and other limitations, B-1s have already left a trail of havoc in Afghanistan in the form of dead civilians and soldiers. As Obama prepares to sink more political capital into the Air Force’s promises, he might also ponder the deaths of five American servicemen and one Afghan soldier in the Gaza Valley, a few miles northeast of Kandahar, on June 9 of this year.

The men were part of a team of U.S. and Afghan soldiers assigned to “disrupt insurgent activity and improve security for local polling stations” in advance of the Afghan presidential runoff elections. Throughout the day, as they moved through the valley and searched farm compounds, they were intermittently sniped at without effect. By 7:00 p.m., the men moved to their helicopter pick-up points. Twelve thousand feet above, a B-1 with a load of satellite-guided bombs was flying five-mile circles: if the team encountered any difficulty, it was ready to provide support.

At about ten minutes before eight, in the gathering dusk, one or two people began shooting at them. The Special Forces soldier assigned to coordinate air support, a so-called Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), contacted the B-1 and reported the skirmish. Meanwhile, six members of the team climbed to a nearby ridgeline to outflank the enemy and began returning fire. Just over twenty minutes later, two 500-pound JDAM bombs launched from the B-1 landed in the midst of the little group. Five of the men were killed instantly, their bodies ripped apart by the blasts. The sixth died from his wounds shortly afterwards.

This disaster occurred just as the fight in Congress over the plan to discard the A-10 was peaking, so the Air Force was bound to handle the mandatory investigation with the most delicate sensitivity. Just to make sure that the enquiry did not yield any unhelpful conclusions, it was assigned to a senior Air Force officer, Major General Jeffrey L. Harrigian. His report, largely declassified and released on September 4, did not disappoint, neatly apportioning blame among all involved—the B-1 crew, the JTAC, and the ground-force commander—for displaying “poor situational awareness” and “improper target identification.” With everyone blamed, the predictable consequence was that no one need take responsibility.

Yet a close examination of Harrigian’s report reveals that these young men (the oldest was 28, the youngest 19) died because the Air Force insisted on entrusting their safety to a weapon system and crew unsuited for the task, yet cherished by the generals for their own peculiar ideological and political reasons. Most importantly: no one had bothered to inform the B-1 crew that their means for distinguishing friendly troops from enemies did not and could not work.

Special Forces soldiers customarily wear “firefly” strobes, which emit infrared light, on their helmets. These are designed to alert anyone using night-vision goggles (i.e., other U.S. troops) that the wearer is a “friendly” without alerting the enemy. As night closed in on June 9, all the B-1 pilots could see of the firefight two and a half miles below were muzzle flashes. If those flashes were in close proximity to the blinking of a strobe, then they were friends. Otherwise, so far as the crew was concerned, they marked an enemy target.

The copilot did periodically peer through a pair of night-vision goggles. A B-1 cockpit is ill-suited for their use, since the windows are especially thick—a legacy of the plane’s genesis as a supersonic nuclear bomber—while the instrument panel emits a glare that clouds the goggles’ vision. Like most other planes assigned to such missions, the B-1 also carried a “targeting pod” under its right wing, which transmitted an infrared image of the ground below onto a screen in the cockpit. But these pods, which use longer wavelengths of infrared light, cannot detect infrared strobes.

Amazingly, the Air Force had thought it unnecessary to inform B-1 crews of this salient fact. So, looking at the screen and seeing no strobe lights close to the muzzle flashes on the ridgeline, the crew prepared to bomb. The atmosphere in the cockpit was growing fraught. As the U.S. war in Afghanistan winds down, there are decreasing opportunities for such crews to “go kinetic.” (One of the pilots had not dropped a single bomb on his twenty-one previous missions.) The B-1 was also running low on fuel and would soon have to leave the scene, in which case the task would fall to another plane, an AC-130 gunship waiting nearby. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the radios on the $300 million bomber did not work very well due to poorly placed antennas, which meant that no less than twelve transmissions to and from the JTAC on the ground never got through.

Matters got worse when the B-1’s weapons officer, who sits in a metal box with no view of the outside world whatsoever, attempted to load the target location information into the computer. The effort failed and the bombs did not drop. The pilot brought the plane around for a second pass, and again the system failed. The weapons officer now laboriously reprogrammed the computer to “bomb on target,” which meant that he would manually aim the bombs by clicking the cursor on a video screen. This attempt failed as well. Finally, twenty-one minutes after the effort had begun, two bombs dropped, heading unerringly toward their unwitting victims.

Four minutes after the explosion, the JTAC on the ground called anxiously to the B-1. “That grid [target location] you passed me did not have any IR strobes at it, is that correct?”

“Affirm,” replied one of the pilots.

“And your sensor can pick up IR strobes?”

“Affirm.”

When other members of the team reached the ridgeline, they found one badly wounded man who murmured, “I can’t breathe,” and then died. The dismembered corpses of the others were littered over a wide area. All that could be located of one soldier, a 22-year-old corporal, was a small portion of a leg.

Apart from shipping the bodies home and commissioning an enquiry, the most immediate response from the Air Force was to take a New York Times reporter for a joyride on a B-1. Helene Cooper duly turned in an upbeat dispatch, noting that the “cockpit of a B-1 bomber in the middle of a fight—even a practice one—is a thing to behold.” She described the “expansive” view from the pilot’s seat as “nothing but sky.” Civilians in targeted areas of Iraq and Syria, not to mention any U.S. personnel assigned to guide the bombing, must wish the pilots, and the Washington officials who send them, had an equally expansive view of the ground.

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