Air Force Pilot Fights to Clear His Name in Friendly Fire Case

Illinois Air National Guard F-16 pilot Maj. Harry Schmidt has chosen to face a court-martial–and six months in prison if convicted of dereliction of duty–to clear his name in the wake of an Apr. 17, 2002, friendly fire incident in Afghanistan that killed four Canadian soldiers.

Although military pilots have been disciplined in the past for such events, this is the first time a U.S. pilot has ever faced a court-martial for a wartime friendly fire incident.

Schmidt would not speak for this article. His wife, Lisa, however, said her husband could not accept the non-judicial punishment the Air Force offered him to avert a court-martial. “Gen. [Bruce] Carlson [commander of the 8th Air Force] wanted an Article 15 for my husband and a review by the Flight Evaluation Board,” she said. “My husband refused that because the board probably would have taken away his wings since Gen. Carlson wrote it a letter saying he committed misconduct.”

Her husband, she says, wants to “acquit himself.”

There is little dispute over what happened Apr. 17, 2002. The case revolves around whether Schmidt’s actions were reasonable or negligent. Schmidt and his flight lead, Maj. William Umbach–who was flying another F-16–were experienced pilots. Schmidt had taken amphetamines, issued to him by the Air Force, in order to help him stay alert–but which the defense may use to argue that Schmidt’s judgment could have been impaired.

A Coalition Investigation Board (CIB) report and an Article 32 pre-trial report provide an account, aided by tape recordings.

That night, Canadian soldiers were doing live-fire training on a U.S.-run range near Kandahar. Umbach and Schmidt were returning from an uneventful mission (called “Coffee Flight”) to support ground forces.

Umbach thought he saw surface-to-air fire (SAFIRE) that threatened them. Neither he nor Schmidt had been briefed that they would be flying over a live-fire exercise. The Canadians’ “exercise involved stalking a tank and did not call for firing into the air. However, at one point, a target was on the top of a rise. Rounds fired at it may have been above the horizontal Moreover, ricochets did go up into the sky,” says the Article 32 report.

Schmidt turned and descended, positioning his plane to protect Umbach. Asked why Schmidt descended, his attorney, Charles Gittins, said, “Harry had no choice but to descend because he executed a 5.3G defensive maneuver that bled off airspeed. . . . He could not leave because his flight lead did not tell him to leave.”

The CIB report says that when Schmidt requested to lay down fire from his 20mm cannon, an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) told him to “hold fire, need details on SAFIRE.” Schmidt replied, “Okay I’ve got a, uh, I’ve got some men on a road and it looks like a piece of artillery firing on us. I am rolling in in self-defense.” AWACS responded that it “copies.” Calling “bombs away,” Schmidt released one 500-lb GBU-12 laser-guided bomb.

Thirty-eight seconds after Schmidt originally reported that he was going in in self-defense, and after the AWACS had communicated with the Coalition Air Operations Center (CAOC) on the ground, the AWACS informed Schmidt: “Be advised Kandahar has friendlies, you are to get COFFEE 51 [Umbach] out of there as soon as possible.”

A little later, AWACS said, “Disengage, friendlies Kandahar.” Schmidt said, “Copy, uh, can you confirm they were shooting at us?” AWACS replied, “You cleared self-defense [unintelligible]. . . . There may be friendlies Kandahar” (brackets in original).

Gittins said that the CIB’s report is “generally” accurate. But he asserts that the AWACS told Schmidt, “Roger, you’re cleared self-defense,” but only after Schmidt had released the bomb. The laser-guided device would likely have landed in the same place no matter when it was dropped. The transcript, as reported in the CIB report, indicates that the AWACS only acknowledged Schmidt’s own declaration of self-defense. But the report also indicates that the portion of the tape is fuzzy. The Article 32 report says that whether or not Schmidt legitimately acted in self-defense does not depend on permission from AWACS. “Neither orders, regulations, nor ROEs/SPINs [rules of engagement and procedural rules] can deprive individuals of the common law (as recognized in the Manual for Courts-Martial) right of self-defense. . .,” it says. “If Coffee Flight was acting as a reasonable F-16 pilot would in self-defense, they would not be guilty of dereliction.”

Umbach accepted a reprimand and was allowed to retire with 20 years of service.

Lisa Schmidt believes the Air Force began the prosecution of her husband to mollify Canada. “We were trying to get Canada to be our allies at the time,” she said. Since then, she said, the prosecution may be trying to distract from “a command and control failure. The generals don’t want to take responsibility.” Why didn’t people know about the live-fire exercise? she asks.

Asked who was responsible for briefing the pilots and AWACS about the exercise, 8th Air Force public affairs officer Capt. Denice Kerr said, “I can’t answer that.” Asked if anyone would be allowed to, she said, “No.”

The Article 32 report dismisses the issue. “Even if the acts of the third parties or Canadians were somehow negligent, Coffee Flight would still be criminally liable,” it says. “The reason AWACS and CAOC didn’t know about the exercise was not part of the picture for Coffee Flight and is not relevant to the specific legal issues involved.”

The Article 32 report includes testimony from top pilots, some of whom said that what Umbach and Schmidt did–if they had really been under attack–was safer than other courses of action, and some who said that fleeing the area and waiting to identify the targets from afar was the reasonable course of action.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D.) has taken an interest in seeing that Schmidt gets a fair shake. “A staff member from the governor’s office will be allowed to sit in on 90% of the trial, not the classified part,” said Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch.

“The [prosecution of Schmidt] is a precedent that the USAF will regret in the long run because it is going to cause our airmen to hesitate before they act and such hesitation is likely to get people killed in the future,” said Gittins.