OTTAWA – It has been three years since an American A-10 attack jet inadvertently stafed the soldiers of Charles Company outside of Kandahar, killing Canadian Olympian Private Mark Anthony Graham, in an attack that newly released documents suggest the U.S. commanders put down to Canadian inexperience.
That the U-S pilot, a flight leader and veteran of 60 combat missions, had mistakenly opened up with his 30 millimetre cannon on a garbage fire lit by dusty, exhausted soldiers was never in dispute.
But the Pentagon report, copies of which were obtained by The Canadian Press under U.S. Freedom of Information laws, show American investigators focused much of their attention on the perceived deficenices of the Canadian military and the soldier on the ground directing the air strike.
“I heard the A-10 and looked over my left shoulder,” an unidentified Canadian soldier told U.S. accident investigators in a sworn statement just days after the Sept. 4, 2006, tragedy.
“I saw a shower of ‘white roman candles.’ The impact began 100 metres behind me, southwest of the fire and continued towards and into the fire.”
Transcripts of his testimony, along with witness interviews and aviation analysis reports, were part of more than 1,000 pages of censored documents released.
“Did you have any apprehension or hesitation or any we’ll say nagging issues coming down working with the folks down around Kandahar?” the unidentified pilot was asked by a member of the investigation team.
The pilot, never identified by U.S. authorities, said he had no qualms about working with Canadians and since they had suffered terrible casualties the day before the accident and he “felt some pressure to support them.”
Four soldiers had been killed on Sept. 3, 2006, in a Taliban ambush during the opening phase of the Canadian-led battle Operation Medusa.
Throughout the night of Sept. 3-4, 2006, American jets and attack helicopters bombed and strafed insurgent positions north of Charles Company’s position, chewing up the arid grape fields and flattening a white school that had been turned into fortified redoubts.
The strafing took place just before sunrise at the base of the rugged, volcanic hillside of Masum Ghar west of Kandahar City. It occurred as the heavily armed A-10 jet – known as a warthog – was flying into the murky eastern sky.
The pilot, who had been using night-vision goggles, flipped them off just before the fatal pass. The ground was obscured by haze and smoke from previous bombings.
The only thing he could see through the windscreen and dull glow of his cockpit display was the garbage fire lit by soldiers, who huddled around it for warmth.
“Splash,” the pilot said, referring to fountains of earth kicked up by the armour-piercing rounds, in a transcript of the cockpit recording.
Within seconds the Canadian the air-ground controller with the troops was screaming into the radio telling the pilot and his wingman, who was lining up to a follow-on attack, to abort.
“I, ah, got confused by, I saw smoke coming from another position. I rolled in on the wrong spot,” the pilot said after being told friendly troops had been hit.
The soldier on the radio, after confirming the pilot had switched his guns to “safe” demanded to know what happened: “Can you tell me why those rounds came in on a friendly position?”
“That was pilot error. I had the smoke coming up from that position and I mistook (garbled),” was the answer.
Despite the admission, transcripts of the joint investigation by Canadian and U.S. military officers show close attention was paid to the actions of the soldier on the ground and deficiencies in equipment.
The complaints included: the Canadian soldiers did not have proper identification markers; the Canadian air controller was tired and had been in continuous action for 72 hours with only four hours sleep; and the Canadians had only one soldier to co-ordinate both aircraft and artillery fire.
Questions were raised about the training. At one point, the Canadians were described as “probably not the best” joint tactical air controllers.
“Were you comfortable with the inputs he was giving, the level of control and the manner with which he exercised his authority? Do you think he could have done better?” the pilot was asked.
The pilot answered: “I think we all obviously could have done better because the outcome shows that. I think there’s things on both sides we could have done.”
Both the Canadian and U.S. investigation reports cite the pilot and the need for better training, but the Pentagon documents are more scathing in their criticism.
A separate Canadian board of inquiry focused on the pilot and said the incident could have been prevented “had the pilot checked” his electronic combat display in the cockpit.
It also made a series of recommendations to improve training, standards and equipment.
Canadian officers in charge of training in Kingston, Ont., said Thursday that all of the Canadian report’s recommendations had been implemented or will be.
“War is a dangerous business, inherently, and will continue to be a dangerous business,” said. Maj. Tony Dejacolyn.
“Forward air controlling is a dangerous business as well, but we’ve made some great improvements to mitigate the risk and ensure we’re doing everything possible to train our folks right.”
Training standards have been set higher than NATO expectations and ground troops in their armoured vehicles are now linked to an aircraft’s onboard camera and can see the target the plane is going after.
“Some of these improvements were not conceivable four years ago,” said Lt. Dwayne Guymer, who just returned from a training exercise.
At last report, the pilot in involved in the Masum Ghar tragedy had received no censure.
Calls made this week to the 9th U.S. Air Force headquarters in Sumter, N.C., were not returned.