26 die by 'friendly fire'

April 15, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Human error and electronic failure to correct it led two U.S. fighter jets to shoot down two U.S. Army helicopters yesterday in broad daylight over northern Iraq.

The helicopters were carrying officials on a U.N. inspection tour of the Kurdish area in northern Iraq. All 26 crew members and passengers -- 15 Americans, three Turks, two Britons, one Frenchman and five Kurds -- were killed.

The incident, involving two U.S. F-15C pilots flying a United Nations peacekeeping mission over northern Iraq, created brief fears in Washington of new hostilities with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when the downed helicopters were identified initially as Iraqi. The two fighter planes were enforcing the "no-fly zone" set up to protect the Kurdish minority from attacks by Mr. Hussein's forces.

The latest "friendly fire" tragedy sent the Pentagon into a state of shock and the nation into mourning, and raised questions about how such an error could occur despite state-of-the art technology intended to prevent it.

As the bodies of the victims were flown to Turkey, en route to their final resting places, President Clinton expressed "terrible sorrow" and pledged a thorough investigation. He ordered U.S. flags on public buildings nationwide to be flown at half-staff through sunset Monday "as a mark of respect for those who died as a result of the tragic incident."

When the shock of a major military bungle sank in at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William J. Perry postponed a trip to Korea, due to start today, to take over the investigation into how the two helicopters were downed during a coordinated mission with the F-15s and under the control of an AWACS airborne control center circling above.

"I take full responsibility for today's tragedy," Mr. Perry said.

"And I pledge that I will take a direct role in ensuring that the investigation is conducted as thoroughly and as quickly as possible."

Mr. Clinton and other senior administration officials offered condolences to the families of the victims. The victims' identities were being withheld last night, pending notification of their families.

Three things about the incident are certain: The downed U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were wrongly identified visually as Iraqi Hind helicopters by the F-15 pilots; the electronic friend-or-foe identification systems on the helicopters failed to save them; and the AWACS overhead control aircraft did not avert the mistaken target identification.

Foolproof system

The system was supposed to be foolproof and had most recently been checked by the local commander of the U.N. operation to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq, Brig. Gen. Scott Pilkington, who flew similar missions over the area in a Black Hawk helicopter on April 11 and an F-16 fighter on April 13.

Stressing that the flights were routine, Lt. Gen. Richard Keller, chief of staff of the European Command, in Stuttgart, Germany, said yesterday, "It is not as if there were some heightened concern or some new threat."

The ill-fated mission had been rehearsed Wednesday, with all the air crews attending a briefing at which they were told which planes would be operating and where, and the radio frequencies to be used. The F-15 pilots had been flying similar missions since mid-February.

"This whole thing has been rehearsed ahead of time," General Keller said. "Procedures are in place . . . to preclude accidents like the one experienced today."

The U.S. planes were flying as part of the U.N.-sanctioned "Operation Provide Comfort" to protect the Kurds against Iraqi attack andharassment. The operation involves U.S., British, French and Turkish forces. It includes aid deliveries and the enforcement of a "no-fly" zone north of the 36th parallel from which Iraqi planes are banned.

Five questions will dominate the investigation:

* Were electronic IFF (identify friend or foe) systems switched on aboard the helicopters, identifying them as U.S planes?

* Did the F-15 pilots electronically try to identify the helicopters?

* If they did, did red cockpit lights warn the helicopter pilots that they were being targeted, enabling them to signal their identities?

* Were the helicopters and fighter pilots speaking with one another and with the AWACS controllers?

* Why did the F-15 pilots believe they had to fire quickly on two helicopters 35 miles inside the no-fly zone, even if they were Iraqi?

The last time the Iraqis violated the no-fly zone was on Jan. 17, 1993, when a U.S. F-16 shot down an Iraqi MiG-23 flying two miles north of the 36th parallel. Iraqi helicopters have never ventured far into the zone, the Pentagon confirmed last night.

Michael McCurry, the State Department spokesman, said there had been an "atmosphere of tension" for months in the Kurdish region,

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