US Blames Tech for Hospital Strike. But There’s More To The Story

A Doctors Without Borders employee walks inside the remains of the organization's hospital after a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. A Doctors Without Borders employee walks inside the remains of the organization's hospital after a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Najim Rahim / AP

As a result of the errant airstrike on a hospital in Afghanistan last year, the U.S. military will now load aircraft systems with the coordinates of no-strike facilities before they take off, and will update some rules of engagement. That’s about the only change that will occur as a result of the Oct. 3 AC-130U gunship strike that killed 42 medical workers, patients, and other civilians at the Doctors Without Borders facility in Kunduz.

U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, on Friday released the results of their investigation into the incident, which details how the satellite antenna on the AC-130U gunship began to fail almost immediately upon take off, prohibiting the aircrew from broadcasting video to units on the ground. That was one of several failures of technology CENTCOM identified. The gunship took off early to provide air support to Afghan forces that were taking fire, but the crew did not have a thorough brief of the mission and lacked do-not-strike list coordinates. When an enemy missile forced them to dodge to the northwest, the crew and its equipment became disoriented, leading to the mistaken target and tragedy.

“As the aircraft got up on station, it was engaged by a surface-to-air missile. So they followed proper procedures, got off station, and then were given the grids,” Gen. Joseph Votel, CENTCOM commander, said Friday at the Pentagon. “I won’t get into all the technical aspects of this but the angle with which they were trying to acquire that caused the system to come up with the wrong location.”

The report, too, does not “get into all the technical aspects”: the most important tech explanations and descriptions of the systems in question have been heavily redacted.  

The report restates much of what previously was known, including that the Afghan forces provided good grid coordinates for the target site, a Taliban-controlled compound referred to in the report as the NDS facility. The U.S. Special Forces commander on the ground then sent those correct coordinates to the aircraft. When the aircraft dodged to the northwest to avoid the surface-to-air missile, it then moved to a “position [that] critically impacted its ability to precisely locate a grid coordinate[s].” One of the operators on board had trouble getting the coordinates to line up in a way that made sense.

Of course, taking evasive maneuvers without losing the ability to find a target on a map seems like the sort of thing you want your howitzer-armed gunship to be able to do. Modern AC-130s are outfitted with inertial navigation systems, GPS, as well as infrared and synthetic aperture strike radar. But none of that matters when the grid on the map is wrong.

The new coordinates wound up sending the plane to an empty field more than 300 meters off target. Nearby, a large T-shaped building housing the Doctors Without Borders hospital resembled “anecdotally” the T-shaped compound that Taliban forces occupied.

As Defense One and others have pointed out, the closest joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, an individual who helps guide aircraft to their targets, was miles away at the provincial governor’s compound at the time, unable to provide eyes on target. But according to the report, the aircrew didn’t know that.

The crew observed the hospital from 2:00  to 2:09 a.m., according to the report, and did not see “any hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent against protected forces.”

Votel said a relative lack of fighting on the screen should not deter a targeting decision. “That’s not unusual, frankly. As an individual who has looked through a lot of sensors, you don’t always see fire coming from a building. That, in and of itself, that they couldn’t see fire coming from a building, which is difficult to see in my estimation, is not particularly unusual.”

The commander on the ground, believing the crew was working with the right coordinates, ordered a strike. “At REDACTED requested that REDACTED ‘soften[ing] the target for partner forces.’” The report states. “The aircrew seemed internally confused by this request and asked for clarification, to which REDACTED replied ‘destroy targets of all opportunity that may impede partner forces success.’ The aircrew acknowledged REDACTED clarification.”

 “At REDACTED the TV sensor operator expressed concern regarding communications with REDACTED stating ‘He is being very vague, and I’m not sure if that’s going to people with weapons or just anybody, so we will stay neutral as far as that goes.””
CENTCOM Investigation report into the Kunduz hospital strike.

A lone sensor operator expressed doubt. Too many signs weren’t lining up, at least not in a way that made sense. “At REDACTED the TV sensor operator expressed concern regarding communications with REDACTED stating ‘He is being very vague, and I’m not sure if that’s going to people with weapons or just anybody, so we will stay neutral as far as that goes.””

That operator “was the only crew member to realize that the observed location might be incorrect, but efforts to clarify the discrepancy were diluted by inaccurate misleading and digressing communications and descriptions between REDACTED and REDACTED. Decisions made from the REDACTED to employ fires were based on poorly-developed or non-existent [satellite antenna],” says the report.

The crew fired anyway, more than 200 rounds. “The aircraft Commander approved REDACTED engagement, in violation of [rules of engagement],” the report said.

No war crimes were committed, CENTCOM argues, and no criminal charges will follow. One officer was suspended from command and sent out of the country. Others received letters of reprimand and retraining.

Votel on Friday said that he had no plans to change the policy that allows AC-130 airstrikes even when a JTAC can’t get his eyes on the target.

“The processes that we use do account for whether we can see the target that we see or not,” the general said. “I remain confident in our procedures to do it either of those ways. I do not foresee us changing anything with respect to those particular techniques and procedures that we use. The key point I would highlight here. The procedures are good. What we did learn from this is the singular importance of clear communication between the ground and the air,” he said. “That is a specific area where I in my previous roles as a [Special Operations Command or, SOCOM] commander really focused our commanders into.”

Votel pronounced himself satisfied that the AC-130U fleet was in good shape, and was satisfied that the various technical problems that the crew experienced weren’t indicative of fleet wide bugs.

Air Force Special Operations Command “has looked in great detail at that particular problem. In my estimation this was not a systematic problem,” he said. “This was a failure at that particular point of this specific radio system and antenna that was designed to receive data and transmit data to the ground. I am unaware that this was a systemic problem. It was a problem that night, obviously, that contributed to this issue right here.”

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