Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"...that thing with the orange panels is going to screw us..."

In this week's Economist, Bagehot (the UK section editorial) is called "A rough patch for the special relationship" and outlines how the upper echelons of the British government are putting as much space between themselves and the US administration as possible, so that once Blair goes they hope he will take the Iraq War with him. It was published last Friday, but that patch has just got a whole lot rougher. I wouldn't normally link to the Sun as it's a rag, but its journos (and ever open chequebook probably) have produced a coup by getting their hands on the cockpit video and audio from one of the USAF A10s that killed Lance Corporal Matty Hull of the Household Cavalry in 2003 and injured a number of his colleagues. Whilst the inquest into his death knew this vital evidence existed and that the UK MoD had it, they weren't allowed to have it because the MoD said that Pentagon wasn't allowing its release. You can see why when you read the transcript, or better watch the entire video.

The pilots clearly saw the orange panels, used by NATO to mark "friendlies" and described them as exactly that at 1336.57. The pilot Popov36 calls them orange panels again at 1338.49 - so they've been discussing it for two minutes - they discuss it a load more, decide that the panels have become rocket launchers (have you ever heard of orange rockets? Maybe there are some but it seems a very odd colour to paint rockets deployed on a battlefield) and then "roll in" and attack at 1342.09. It's taken them over five minutes to convince themselves that what they correctly identified first as friendly markers weren't that. About halfway through that time period POPOV36 screws himself by saying "I think killing these damn rocket launchers, it would be great." After hearing they have made mistake, they realise that its their fault because as they leave the area at 1351.33 POPOV36 says "Yeah, I know that thing with the orange panels is going to screw us" and the now famous "We’re in jail dude".

Shit happens in war, everyone knows this, but the American military keep doing it and A10 pilots in particular have a history of not being able to identify British armoured vehicles. In the first Gulf War the US managed to kill as many British servicemen as the Iraqis did, mainly from one strike by an A10. When I was a kid we regularly used to see USAF A10s flying over our house, so I would imagine that at least some of the older pilots have been based in the UK - you would imagine this would have given them opportunity to study British tank shapes!

But the way the Pentagon refuses to allow its servicemen to be involved in the inquest is what is really upsetting and leads to angry responses in the UK
. All the fine words and "Thank you Tony" seem rather hollow when the US won't even send two men to answer questions at a coroners inquest. And the classifying of the tape looks simply political; as one defence analyst puts it: "I can see no reason for classifying it, other than it is deeply embarrassing to the US military." So although the pilots thought they were going to jail the Pentagon clearly isn't going to see that happen.


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's as clear cut as you make out Toby. The pilots are clearly heard being told there are no 'friendlies' in the area, despite asking and checking at least twice. There appears to be some sort of communication problem between the different people on the ground (ie Hotel Manila can't find out what's going on, and can only hear the pilots). Towards the end of the tape a British voice can be heard relaying the message 'abort, abort' between Hotel Manila and another (presumably?) ground-based American controller who, it seems, can't hear each other. (Weirdly relaying like that is exactly what we do in paragliding competitions when communications between people on the ground are stretched - in the air you can hear everything, but on the ground you can only hear whoever is in the air, not the people on the ground who might only be a mile away, but behind a hill or other obstruction. For that you need a repeater station set up. Why can't the US military hear what's going on? There's your question.) Personally I watched it and thought the guys on the ground were confused and issuing unclear instructions - probably because they couldn't communicate with each other properly. The guys in the air got it wrong because they were told the wrong thing by the guys on the ground.

KGS said...

When it's a question of military ops during a time of war, its very risky to suggest that accidental friendly fire would not account for all the such tragedies.

I am reminded of the USS Liberty attacked by Israel during the 67' war, after an umpteenth number of investigations, there are still those who cling to the canard that it wasn't an accident.

That the US "keeps doing it", is due to the fact that the overwhelming precentage of ops are being carried out by the US. If the shoe was on the other foot, we would be hearing that the Brits "keep doing it".

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

There is a lot of confusion - but it seems that Manila Hotel is telling them that there are no friendlies in a different place. The pilots also ask for an artillery marker shot, but don't wait for it. The Sun claims six errors: "Circling at an altitude of 12,000ft, the A-10s spotted Iraqi vehicles 800 yards north, and the British patrol less than three miles west. ERROR ONE came when they asked the Forward Air Controller, call sign Manila Hotel, if friendly forces were around the Iraqi vehicles — not to the west. In ERROR TWO neither pilot gave the precise grid references for the Household Cavalry patrol to double check its identity. ERROR THREE saw them convince themselves the identification panels were really orange rocket launchers. In ERROR FOUR POPOV36 decides to attack, saying he is “rolling in” — without permission from the Forward Air Controller. POPOV35 asks for artillery to fire a marker round into the target area to clear up confusion. But ERROR FIVE came when POPOV36 attacked without waiting for it. In ERROR SIX POPOV36 strafes the column for a second time but still doubts its identity." I don't know whether the paper is right and these were errors or not, but the main point is that if evidence isn't given to the inquiry and the pilots don't give their side of the story we won't know.

It still seems that the pilots didn't know what markers they were meant to be looking for - NATO standard - otherwise after seeing orange panels they would have aborted. They didn't need to attack - they never believed they were being threatened. They chose to because "it would be great" to get a kill. Compare it to the Tarnak Farm incident in Afghanistan where the USAF F16 pilots at least thought they had been fired on before dropping the bomb that killed all the Canadians. And that pilot was found guilty. If the Pentagon obstructs the coroner's inquiry we are left with the obvious conclusion that the pilots were reckless.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Of course it was an accident KGS. They didn't get up in the morning and say "lets go and kill some allies". That is completely beside the point. The point is why won't they release all the information to an English court.

KGS said...

I believe your main point is that the Americans "keep doing it", since you already admit to knowing why:

"Whilst the inquest into his death knew this vital evidence existed and that the UK MoD had it, they weren't allowed to have it because the MoD said that Pentagon wasn't allowing its release. You can see why when you read the transcript, or better watch the entire video."

What you are really after is "why the US keeps making the same mistakes". All I can say, is that your original assesment of "shit happens in war" spells things out rather correctly.

As a second class signalman in the US Navy, I can attest to the difficulties in properly identifying ships at sea through the use of ("big eyes") high power binoculars. This was during peace time with slow moving ships in question.

Shit happens, and the staggering number of military deaths in Iraq by accidents alone proves your point.