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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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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