Though no dereliction of duty was found, a Pentagon investigation raised troubling questions: Among them: Was the Predator missile fired too quickly?
A U.S. Air Force Predator unmanned aircraft. The decision to fire a missile from one of the growing fleet of U.S. drones is made as ground commanders, pilots and analysts at far-flung military installations analyze video and data feeds from the combat zone and communicate through voice and text messages. The system is far from foolproof. (Handout, Reuters / September 24, 2011)
On the evening of April 5, a pilot settled into a leather captain’s chair at Creech Air Force Base in southern Nevada and took the controls of a Predator drone flying over one of the most violent areas of southwestern Afghanistan. Minutes later, his radio crackled.
A firefight had broken out. Taliban insurgents had ambushed about two dozen Marines patrolling a bitterly contested road.
The Air Force captain angled his joystick and the drone veered toward the fighting taking place half a world away, where it was already morning. He powered up two Hellfire missiles under its wings and ordered a crew member responsible for operating the drone’s cameras to search for enemy fighters.
It didn’t take long to find something. Three figures, fuzzy blobs on the pilot’s small black-and-white screen, lay in a poppy field a couple of hundred yards from the road.
“Hey now, wait. Standby on these,” the pilot cautioned. “They could be animals in the field.” Seconds later, tiny white flashes appeared by the figures — the heat signature of gunfire. “There they are,” he said, now sure he was looking at the enemy.
At an Air National Guard base in Terre Haute, Ind., an intelligence analyst whose job it was to monitor the video to help prevent mistakes on the mission also observed the muzzle flashes — but noticed that they were firing away from the embattled Marines.
Marines at Patrol Base Alcatraz, 12 miles from the firefight, watched their screens too, as they kept in contact with both the drone crew and the platoon members, who had set out from the base just an hour earlier. It would be their decision whether to call in a missile strike.
Thirty-one seconds after the pilot reported muzzle flashes, the Marines at Alcatraz ordered that the Predator be prepared to strike if the shooters could be confirmed as hostile. At 8:49 a.m., 29 minutes after the ambush began, they authorized the pilot to fire.
In minutes, two Americans would be dead.