Skip to comments.CHANGING BATTERY IN GPS DEVICE LED TO 'FRIENDLY FIRE' DEATHS
Posted on 03/26/2002 10:06:30 AM PST by Marianne
WASHINGTON - The deadliest "friendly fire" incident of the war in Afghanistan was triggered in December when a U.S. Special Forces air controller changed the battery on a Global Positioning System device he was using to target a Taliban outpost, a senior defense official said Saturday.
Three Special Forces soldiers were killed and 20 were injured when a 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bomb landed, not on the Taliban outpost north of Kandahar, but on a battalion command post occupied by American forces and a group of Afghan allies, including Hamid Karzai, now the interim prime minister.
The U.S. Central Command, which runs the Afghan war, has never explained how the coordinates got mixed up or who was responsible for relaying the U.S. position to a B-52 bomber, which fired a Joint Direct Attack Munition at the Americans.
But the senior defense official explained Saturday that the Air Force combat controller was using a Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver, known to soldiers as a "plugger," to calculate coordinates for a B-52 attack.
The controller did not realize that after he changed the device's battery, the machine was programmed to automatically come back on while displaying coordinates for its own location, the official said.
Minutes before the fatal B-52 strike, which also killed five Afghan opposition soldiers and injured 18 others, the controller had used the GPS receiver to calculate the latitude and longitude of the Taliban position in minutes and seconds for an airstrike by a Navy F/A-18, the official said.
Then, with the B-52 approaching the target, the air controller did a second calculation in "degree decimals" required by the bomber crew. The controller had performed the calculation and recorded the position, the official said, when the receiver battery died.
Without realizing the machine was programmed to come back on showing the coordinates of its own location, the controller mistakenly called in the American position to the B-52. The bomb landed with devastating precision.
The official said he did not know how the Air Force would treat the incident and whether disciplinary action would be taken.
But the official, a combat veteran, said he considered the incident "an understandable mistake under the stress of operations."
"I don't think they've made any judgments yet, but the way I would react to something like that - it is not a flagrant error, a violation of a procedure," the official said. "Stuff like that, truth be known, happens to all of us every day - it's just that the stakes in battle are so enormously high."
Nonetheless, the official said the incident shows that the Air Force and Army have a serious training problem that needs to be corrected.
"We need to know how our equipment works; when the battery is changed, it defaults to his own location," the official said. "We've got to make sure our people understand this."
Navy Cmdr. Ernest Duplessis, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, declined to comment on the friendly fire incident, saying an investigation "has not cleared our review yet."
Don't you just hate it when you re-boot a device, and it doesn't magically know what you want it to do? I can't count the number of times I have unplugged my computer, re-booted it, only to find that the website I had only just viewed, or the game I had just played, is not where it was. What an idiot. The controller should have known this, it's pretty dog-gone obvious that a GPS would not 'guess' the co-ordinates of an enemy after the batteries were changed.
This could be avoided if the units had flash RAM. Or if the operator had a brain.
This was completely avoidable. What a waste.
If anything, it shouldn't have been able to send targeting coordinates for its own position.
I have questioned both recently about the "pluggers" and from what they tell me dependence on those devices is viurtually universal as today's soldiers are very poor at Land Navigation.
Both of my sons still carry both a compass and an altimiter and routinely use them to back check what the "plugger" tells them.
There is also the issue of degraded battery performance in very cold environments.
The military and the USAF in particular, are working hard to improve the "sensor to shoot" time. With that, comes increased risk that decision makes will be overloaded with data - and that can lead to blue on blue fires.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.