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F-16 pilots avoid charges for manslaughter

June 19, 2003 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The U.S. military won't pursue charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault or dereliction of duty against two F-16 pilots who mistakenly bombed Canadian soldiers last year in Afghanistan, killing four.
Military officials have decided to discipline the two veteran pilots in an administrative forum, but it wasn't clear what kind of penalties they would face, if any, the source said. The airmen - Maj. William Umbach and Maj. Harry Schmidt - could face a review that could result in their wings being taken away, but it is unlikely that they will face any kind of court martial.

The pilots were charged with four counts each of involuntary manslaughter, eight counts of assault and one count of dereliction of duty after they dropped a 225-kilogram bomb on a group of Canadian paratroopers.

Lt.-Gen. Bruce Carlson of the 8th Air Force in Barksdale, La., decided after months of consideration that the two airmen should not face criminal charges.

The tragedy began to unfold when Schmidt and Umbach spotted gunfire as they were flying near Kandahar en route to a refuelling session after a six-hour mission. The pilots, who had been briefed that there were Taliban forces massing near the area, thought the blasts were streaming toward their F-16 fighter jets.

They didn't know that 6,400 metres below, Canadian soldiers were in the middle of night-time training exercises at a range just 4.5 kilometres away from their base.

Fearing his lead pilot was under attack, Schmidt dropped the laser-guided bomb on the troops, killing Leger, Pte. Nathan Smith, Pte. Richard Green and Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer. They were the first Canadians to die in combat since the Korean War. Eight other Canadian soldiers were wounded. Some of the injured soldiers suffered permanent disabilities.

Schmidt, a Top Gun pilot, was told to hold fire when he asked for permission to bomb the target. But seconds later, he declared self-defence and unleashed the explosive.

Defence lawyers argued that the pilots, both members of the Illinois National Guard, were never told the Canadian forces were practising at the range, even though the allies had informed U.S. forces and it was contained in special documents used to brief the pilots.

A joint U.S.-Canadian investigation concluded the pilots were to blame. The head of the investigation testified the men showed "reckless disregard" for standing orders against attacking.

Several witnesses at the hearing said the pilots broke basic rules of engagement and had several chances to flee the area, but instead turned back to the area above the Canadians to deploy the bomb.

The pilots' lawyers contend they were the victims of a systemic communications failure that left them without vital information that would have informed them of the Canadian presence on the ground.