WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) -- A joint military investigation has recommended that two members of the Illinois Air National Guard face a formal military hearing in connection with the deaths of four Canadian soldiers killed by a U.S. bomb while training in Afghanistan, government officials said Wednesday.
An eight-week inquiry, conducted by an American and a Canadian officer, concluded that Maj. Harry Schmidt of the Illinois Air National Guard did not take time to assess the threat he was under before he dropped a GBU-12 laser guided bomb from his F-16 fighter aircraft on a group of Canadians conducting a live-fire exercise in Eastern Afghanistan last April 18. Four Canadians from the Third Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were killed and another eight were wounded.
The investigation, which questioned some 70 witnesses, recommended an Article 32 hearing, a military procedure similar to a grand jury, for Schmidt and for Maj. William Umbach, a fellow F-16 pilot, in connection with the bombing. This is the most serious friendly fire incident of the Afghanistan war and the first time that Canadian soldiers have been killed in combat since the Korean War.
Government officials told United Press International that after observing muzzle flashes on the ground while flying near Kandahar, the two pilots thought they had come under hostile fire. Schmidt requested permission to attack, but it was denied and he was asked to mark the target's location. In the course of that, Schmidt allegedly saw more muzzle flashes and thought Umbach was coming under fire. He released his bomb at that time.
According to the 1500-page report, instead of following procedure and leaving the area to assess the threat and plan a possible counter-strike, Schmidt rushed to attack before an AWACs plane controlling the area could confirm whether or not it was hostile fire. Later he was advised that there were possibly friendly troops in the area.
In fact the Canadians were in a previously dedicated training area that was well know to coalition forces and American troops in Afghanistan. Capt. James Key, an Air Force lawyer representing Schmidt, issued a statement that Schmidt "did not know that the troops on the ground were coalition soldiers. He has provided information about the accident to both joint American-Canadian and the independent Canadian investigation boards." Key said Schmidt "feels great sorrow for this tragic accident. The pilot believes that he properly followed procedures based on the information he had at the time."
Neither Schmidt nor Umbach could be reached for comment. The two pilots are part of the 170th Fighter Squadron of the National Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing based at Springfield, Ill. According to The New York Times, which first published the findings of the inquiry, the report also recommends changes in the 170th Fighter Squadron.
Umbach, who is the commanding officer of the 170th, was criticized for failing to exercise leadership during the incident, the Times said.
The investigation was conducted by Brig. Gen. Stephen T. Sargeant of the Air Force and Brig. Gen. Marc Dumais of Canada. It has not been made public. A separate inquiry by Canadian forces is to be completed Friday.
The Times reported that Schmidt was a seasoned former Navy pilot and instructor at the Navy's "Top Gun" weapons training facility in California.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin issued a statement Wednesday saying that the United States "owes it to the families of the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives to have a complete and thorough investigation of this matter. But we also owe it to the men and women of the 183rd Fighter Wing who risked their lives to defend our country to conduct this investigation in a fair and reasonable manner, and to understand that even under the best of circumstances, sometimes the tragedy of friendly fire occurs." Earlier President George W. Bush promised Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien there would be a full inquiry.