What all three tragedies share is what motorists call “driving beyond your headlights”-going so fast at night that you don’t have time to stop if your headlights reveal something blocking the road ahead. These military accidents suffered from the same shortsightedness. Basically, the U.S. military’s firepower is so good-so lethal-that it must be used carefully, especially when there is no imminent threat to allied forces. And an “imminent threat”-as Iran Air 655 shows-can be in the eye of the beholder.In each case, technology that should have applied brakes to the deadly decision wasn’t working properly, or wasn’t interpreted properly by those involved. Each time, a human made the initial wrong decision that culminated in disaster.There is no known technology to prevent that.
Fatal Guesswork: Why the U.S. Military Attacked that Afghan Hospital
REUTERS / Massoud HossainiU.S. Army General John Campbell explains the string of mistakes Nov. 25 that led a U.S. gunship to fire on a hospital, killing 30.
The Pentagon’s deadly snafus have one thing in common
The Oct. 3 attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders in English) hospital in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz has disturbing echoes of two other mistaken attacks by the U.S. military: the 1988 shoot down of Iran Air 655, killing 290 innocent civilians over the Persian Gulf, and the 1994 destruction of a pair of U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq, killing 26, including 15 Americans.Army General John Campbell looked stricken Thanksgiving Eve as he detailed how U.S. troops blasted away at an Afghan hospital last month, killing 30. His grim visage made clear that he’d rather have been any place in the world other than that podium in Kabul. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the first American commander to face second-guessing spotlights, highlighting in hindsight what now seems so obvious: how could such a snafu have happened?
Worked Perfectly: The Vincennes fires the same kind of missile it used to down Iran Air 655 (Navy photo)
Worked Perfectly: An F-15 fires an air-to-air missile. (Air Force photo)
– The aircraft launched without conducting a normal mission brief or securing crucial mission essential related materials, including the no-strike designations which would have identified the location of the MSF trauma center.– During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of aircraft to transmit video, send and receive e-mail or send and receive electronic messages.
Worked Perfectly: An AC-130 firing its 105mm cannon at night. (Air Force photo)– When the aircrew entered the coordinates into their fire-control systems, the coordinates correlated to an open field over 300 meters from the NDS [National Director of Security building, where Taliban fighters had been battling Afghan forces for five days] headquarters…This mistake happened because the aircraft was several miles beyond its normal orbit and its sensors were degraded at that distance.– The aircrew visually located the closest, largest building near the open field, which we now know was the MSF trauma center.– The aircrew concluded, based on the [U.S. Special Operation’s target spotter’s] description of a large building near a field, that the MSF trauma center was the NDS headquarters.-One minute prior to firing, the aircrew transmitted to their operational headquarters at Bagram Airfield that they were about to engage the building. They provided the coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center as their target. The headquarters was aware of the coordinates for the MSF Trauma Center and had access to the no-strike list, but did not realize that the grid coordinates for the target matched a location on the no-strike list or that the aircrew was preparing to fire on the hospital.
Worked Imperfectly: Still needs work. (Getty Images)