The U.S. Air Force now has official buy-in from ground commanders to let intelligence analysts speak with Predator crews during the harrowing moments before a drone strike. It’s welcome news. Analysts at the service’s Distributed Ground System sites have been lobbying for this change since 2009 because of a series of miscommunications, some of which remain secret.
These analysts have hours and hours of wartime experience studying real-time Predator video, and their expertise can save lives by preventing civilians or friendly troops from being erroneously targeted.
But as important as it is to provide analysts with voice links to the Predator sites, that still won’t be enough to prevent more tragedies like the deaths of Navy Hospitalman Benjamin Rast and Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, who were killed last year while trying to secure a road in Afghanistan’s Sangin River Valley [“Learning from fratricide,” Page 24].
The stage for this tragedy was set in Sangin, neither in the Predator control station in California nor at the Indiana intelligence site. The on-scene commander lost track of his troops, which left it to the Predator crew to alert the commander to the mistake. The crew did not do that, however, even though analysts in Indiana prompted them with electronic chat messages.
We’ll never know whether Rast and Smith would be alive today if analysts had been able to use the urgency of the human voice to warn the Predator crew that the people they were targeting were shooting in the wrong direction to be Taliban fighters. The analysts were restricted to pecking out desperate chat messages.
The addition of voice links will help, but the ground element of this tragedy must also be addressed to prevent a repeat. After Sangin, the Pentagon should make sure that all troops and commanders have the devices in hand and procedures in place to accurately report, track and display their positions.
Better networking and display equipment can save lives just as surely as up-armored Humvees and mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.
Unfortunately, the military’s 385-page report on the Sangin incident does not probe deeply into why the on-scene commander lost his situational awareness. It says the commander was hampered by “unclear reporting of friendly as well as enemy locations from his subordinates.” It recommends that the commander be “formally counseled,” and it calls for better training of troops and better integration of joint terminal attack controllers and joint fires observers into the ground team.
We don’t know precisely how the Marines kept track of their positions, but there are clues that it was by decidedly low-tech means. A sergeant told investigators he used a “personal Garmin GPS” to identify his squad’s position, and realized moments before the missile impact that he was near the very building where the targets were to be struck. Before the mission, a Marine captain was ordered not to let his troops venture more than 100 meters from the section of road they were to secure because of a “history of ‘not knowing where their guys are located,’Ÿ” according to a Marine Corps master sergeant interviewed by investigators.
There must be room in a $600 billion Pentagon budget for technologies that can help all commanders and dismounted troops share and display their position information more reliably. American and coalition lives depend on it.