Tarnak Farm – Reckless Pilots, Speed, or Fog of War?
On 17 April 2002, as the Afghanistan conflict was escalating, a friendly-fire incident swept the headlines. An American F-16 being flown by an Air National Guard pilot mistook Canadians training in a live fire drill for Taliban insurgents and dropped a 500-pound laser guided bomb (LGB) directly on target. The result was 4 dead and 8 wounded suffered by the Canadian Forces. This was the first loss of life suffered by the Canadians in a combat zone since the Korean War. In the debate that followed this deadly friendly-fire incident were discussions on fighter pilot culture, the ‘fog of war’, and amphetamine (“Go-Pill”) use by warfighters.
SUMMARY OF EVENTS
On the tragic night in 2002, Maj William Umbach was flying as flight lead with his wingman Maj Harry Schmidt over Kandahar, Afghanistan when they noticed small arms fire coming from the ground. They were flying at 23,000 feet (7,000 meters) with Night Vision Goggles (NVG’s) and unaware of the Canadian exercise being conducted. They instead assumed they were being fired upon. Maj Schmidt later reported that he felt his flight lead was in danger and requested permission to execute a ground attack from controllers on the airborne modified Boeing 707 that manages air combat. This aircraft is known as the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and is populated with controllers and sensor operators who control the airborne fight thru an abundance of sophisticated sensor equipment. On this evening, AWACS was passing communications under the call-sign ” Bossman”. Bossman responded to Schmidt’s request with a simple “Stand by”. Less than two minutes later AWACS followed up with a “hold fire.” Four seconds after this order, Maj Schmidt said he was “rolling in, in self defense.” and dropped his 500 lbs bomb thirty-five seconds later. Schmidt then said “I hope I did the right thing.” Seconds after the bomb hit on target, word from AWACS identified the ground troops as ”friendlies.”
From a January 2003 NY Times article:
After six hours in the air, at about 9 p.m. Coordinated Universal Time — the time used by troops in Afghanistan — the pilots were passing over the Tarnak Farms area when Major Schmidt spotted what he thought was enemy surface-to-air fire.
He descended a few thousand feet to take a closer look, and asked for permission to ”lay down some 20 mike-mike,” or spray the area with 20-millimeter cannon fire, but was told to stand by. Major Umbach cautioned his wing man to wait, as well. ”Let’s just make sure that it’s, that it’s not friendlies, is all,” he said.
At 9:25, the pilots’ Awacs controller ordered them to ”hold fire” and asked Major Schmidt for more information on the surface-to-air fire. But a minute later, after seeing another firing plume from an antitank weapon, Major Schmidt reported seeing ”some men on a road, and it looks like a piece of artillery firing at us.”
”I am rolling in in self-defense,” he said.
After Major Umbach reminded him to unlock his weapons, Major Schmidt called ”bombs away.” Twenty-two seconds later, he reported a direct hit. Ten seconds later, the controller ordered the pilots to disengage, saying the forces on the ground were ”friendlies Kandahar.”1
A joint American-Canadian inquiry soon followed. After the inquiry provided their report, in an unprecedented act, the U.S. Department of Defense brought criminal charges against both Umbach and Schmidt. This would be the first time that the USAF would try pilots for criminal charges. They were both charged with 4 counts of manslaughter and 8 counts of assault. In addition, Major Schmidt was charged with failing to exercise flight discipline and with not complying with the rules of engagement (ROE’s). Major Umbach was charged with negligently failing to exercise appropriate flight command and also failing to ensure compliance with the ROE’s.
The initial inquiry investigators and the trial’s prosecution maintained that the pilots departed from the ROE’s by not leaving the area to assess the threat and plan a possible counterstrike as procedures dictate. Instead Major Schmidt and his flight lead rushed to attack seconds before AWACS could confirm that the ground fire was hostile or not. The defense focused on breakdowns in communication between the Canadians and Americans regarding planned exercises, but also blamed a physiologic loss of judgement due to the ‘Go-Pills‘ that the pilots were taking to remain alert. The defense further argued that the pilots felt ‘compelled’ or ‘pressured’ to take these pills against their own will by USAF leadership and therefore should not be held fully responsible for their actions.
By June of 2003, the criminal charges had been dropped and Major Schmidt accepted a non-judicial Article 32 hearing presided over by 8th Air Force commanding officer, General Bruce Carlson, in favor of a court martial. Maj Umbach was reprimanded and allowed to retire. Maj Schmidt, however, was found guilty of dereliction of duty Tuesday, issued a written reprimand and fined $5,672 in pay. Although he was stripped of his wings, he was allowed to maintain his job with the Illinois Air National Guard (ANG). The reprimand from Gen Carlson was not at all kind, and to Maj Schmidt dismay, it was made public:
“You acted shamefully on 17 April 2002 over Tarnak Farms, Afghanistan, exhibiting arrogance and a lack of flight discipline. When your flight lead warned you to “make sure it’s not friendlies” and the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft controller directed you to “stand by” and later to “hold fire,” you should have marked the location with your targeting pod. Thereafter, if you believed, as you stated, you and your leader were threatened, you should have taken a series of evasive actions and remained at a safe distance to await further instructions from AWACS. Instead, you closed on the target and blatantly disobeyed the direction to “hold fire.” Your failure to follow that order is inexcusable. I do not believe you acted in defense of Major Umbach or yourself. Your actions indicate that you used your self-defense declaration as a pretext to strike a target, which you rashly decided was an enemy firing position, and about which you had exhausted your patience in waiting for clearance from the Combined Air Operations Center to engage. You used the inherent right of self-defense as an excuse to wage your own war.”2
He appealed this decision, but lost the appeal in August 2004. In 2006, Schmidt then sued the USAF for violating the federal Privacy Act by disclosing parts of his military record without his permission. In 2007, he again emerged on the wrong side of an official ruling.
FIGHTER PILOT BRAVADO?
The prosecution at times argued that the pilots were reckless in their actions that night and often attempted to portray fighter pilots in general as a group of war-hungry egomaniacs like Maverick and Ice Man from the blockbuster Top Gun. The fact that Schmidt’s call-sign was ‘Psycho’ didn’t seem to help the defense argue this point. Brig. Gen. Stephen T. Sergeant who had led the American investigation of the incident provided the most damning testimony on this point during the criminal proceedings.
”There was a breakdown in basic airmanship throughout this portion of the flight that night,” the general said, after listening to a recording of radio transmissions among the pilots, their Awacs controller and their ground controllers in Saudi Arabia.
An Air Force reconstruction of the incident shows the two pilots broke formation, with Major Umbach circling high and wide of the firing range and Major Schmidt descending to less than 10,000 feet, less than the minimum altitude permitted for coalition aircraft, slowing to just 237 knots, and making tighter passes over the area.
”That tells me Major Schmidt was in charge of the situation and was directing where the bomb was going to go,” General Sargeant said. ”If they are to employ ordnance, Major Umbach should have given him that direction to do so.”
Major Schmidt’s descent and slowdown put his plane ”in harm’s way,” the general said, violating both the rules of engagement and the pilots’ special instructions, known as spins. ”In my opinion this is a reckless disregard for the spins,” he said.
General Sargeant said he had heard nothing to support the pilots’ claim of self-defense. ”I hear no defensive calls between the fighters,” he said. ”If we’re trying to establish self-defense, there would’ve been communication, a sense of urgency and maneuvering that would’ve reflected defensive action.”
Early in the sequence of events, when Major Schmidt proposed strafing the area with his 20-millimeter cannon, Major Umbach replied cautiously, ”Let’s just make sure that it’s, uh, that it’s not friendlies is all.” But General Sargeant pointed out that ”there’s no response from the wingman.”
Major Umbach should have demanded a response, the general said. ”I would expect him to challenge the wingman and make sure that he heard that and then take steps to make sure there were no friendlies.”
He also said there was ”nothing in the tapes that showed a sense of urgency,” and that, even if the pilots had perceived a threat to themselves from the ground, their actions were still reckless. ”They were supposed to remove themselves from that arena,” he said.
General Sargeant also said that during the entire coalition air campaign over Afghanistan, no other aircraft had gone on the attack immediately after spotting surface-to-air fire.3
The pilots admitted to using Go-pills (amphetamine stimulants) during this particular long combat sortie. Their defense legal team emphasized the argument that the pilots acted reasonably to what they perceived as a threat and that their lack of awareness regarding the Canadian training exercise was the responsibility of others. Seemingly contradicting this tactic that they acted reasonably, however, was another argument pursued by the defense which stated that if they had acted with poor judgement, it was due to stimulant amphetamines that the USAF and pilots’ commanders pressured them to take.
In an interview with Chicago Magazine, Schmidt assigns partial blame of the nights event on these prescribed medications:
Whenever they needed, Schmidt says, he and the other pilots would get a plastic baggie with several tablets of Dexedrine, an amphetamine, from the base pharmacy and pop one before their flight. They took “no-go” pills-essentially sleeping pills-to come down after the mission. Had he been caught using those drugs as a civilian airline pilot, Schmidt says, he would have lost his wings. “But [the air force] gave them to us like they were nothing.”…studies have shown a number of side effects, including increased aggressiveness, paranoia, and an impaired ability to multitask…“I don’t know what the effect was supposed to be,” Schmidt says. “All I know is something [was] happening to my body and brain” that could have affected his judgment, he says.4
USAF and DoD guidance and a fairly strong consensus by medical professionals, however, have taken a varied stance. In fact, the defense’s allegations of medications being responsible for the pilots’ actions that night were readily dismissed. An article from the New York Times in January 2003 during the trial provides a concise summary on the evidence for amphetamine effectiveness on improving performance in fatigued persons, not the opposite as alleged by the defense.
Studies conducted over the last 40 years suggest that low doses of amphetamines do not affect alertness, reaction time or decision-making ability in well-rested people. The drugs do improve the mental performance of people who are fatigued.
Researchers at Columbia University’s medical school, for example, have recently tested amphetamines on people undergoing abrupt changes in their sleep patterns. The subjects were kept awake at night for one week, and switched back to a daytime schedule the next. Immediately after making such a shift, the subjects performed poorly on tests of cognitive ability and reaction time, said Dr. Carl L. Hart, an assistant professor of neuroscience.
But when given 5- to 10-milligram doses of amphetamines — the size prescribed by Air Force flight surgeons — the subjects performed as well as when they are rested.
“In well-rested people, you don’t see the amphetamines cause much improvement,” Dr. Hart said. “But in people who are changing shifts, the drugs bring their performance back up to baseline.”
Air Force officials say that amphetamines have never caused a flight accident. “The pill has never been found to cause or contribute to a mishap before,” General Leaf said.
But exhaustion is a constant concern on lengthy missions, officials said. The Air Force conducted one study, “Air Crew Fatigue as a Human Factor in U.S.A.F. Class A Mishaps — a Twenty-Year Review,” that found that fatigue was a factor in 101 accidents from 1977 to 1997.
Current policy allows a flight surgeon to dispense “go pills” on sorties over 8 hours in a single-pilot fighter or 12 hours in a two-pilot bomber, said Betty Anne Mauger, spokeswoman for the Air Force surgeon general. Any unused pills must be returned by the pilots, and none are prescribed for helicopter pilots, who traditionally fly shorter missions, or for maintenance crews.
Ms. Mauger said that sedatives — nicknamed “no-go pills” — are also prescribed, most often to help pilots adjust to a change in time zones or to sleep during the day in preparation for a night mission. The sleeping pills Sonata, Ambien and Restoril, are used by the Air Force.
Air Force officials deny that pilots are forced to ingest the “go pills,” although an agreement to carry them into the cockpit in case they are needed is one of many criteria that may be used by a commander and flight surgeon in approving a pilot for a mission.
The use of “go pills” has been opposed at even the highest levels of the Air Force. When he was Air Force chief of staff in 1992, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak told his service’s medical corps to stop dispensing amphetamines to pilots.
The Air Force reinstated the use of Dexedrine in 1996.
In three studies conducted in the 1990’s, helicopter pilots were kept awake for 40 hours and asked to perform certain maneuvers — making left or right turns while maintaining a certain altitude, or ascending or descending while maintaining the same speed.
Two of the studies were done in flight simulators and in the third, in real flights. In each case, when the pilots were given 10 milligrams of Dexedrine one hour before being tested, they performed better than when they were given a placebo. On Dexedrine, the pilots also reported feeling more alert and vigorous.
“If anything, a 5- to 10-milligram dose of amphetamines is going to improve their performance,” said Dr. Charles R. Schuster, a psychopharmacologist at Wayne State University School of Medicine, who formerly led the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The culprit here, in my opinion, is sleep deprivation.”
But other scientists question whether the controlled studies of amphetamines are enough to show how the drugs affect judgment in real life.
“These pilots were in an incredibly stressful situation,” said Dr. Jon Morgenstern, director of treatment research at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, at Columbia University. “You had fatigue and the need to make a split-second decision. I don’t think you could rule out that the amphetamines would be a factor. They might have altered the pilots’ perception enough to make them feel more threatened than they normally would have felt.”
Amphetamines increase alertness by increasing the supply of certain neurotransmitters in the brain.
But people easily grow tolerant to them, and they can be addictive. Large doses, over time, can lead to such side effects as anxiety, paranoia and heart problems, medical experts say. Civilian pilots are prohibited from using them.
But scientists in and out of the military say the use of amphetamines makes sense in combat. Military pilots, they say, are less likely than the average person to become dependent on the drugs, especially if they take them under medical supervision and only in a deployment.
“If I were a general in charge of a combat force, and I needed people to stay awake for their own safety,” Dr. Nestler said, “I think that’s a reasonable use of the drug.”5
REASONABLE ACTIONS IN THE FOG OF WAR?
Maj Harry “Psycho” Schmidt has obviously been demonized for his actions on that August night in 2002. Some other fighter pilots testified in his defense, however, that his actions were ‘reasonable’ for a fighter pilot in his situation. Other fellow fighter pilots disagreed vehemently with his actions. Maybe the final word should be given to Maj Schmidt. In an article published by Chicago Magazine almost 2 years after the incident and 10 months after he lost his appeal, a reporter gives Maj Schmidt the opportunity to defend his actions in his own words. Here are the highlights:
And so, the pilot (Maj Harry Schmidt) talks about that night. “I was the wingman,” he says. “I was not in charge of making decisions. It was ‘Shut up, hang on, and say, Yes, sir.’ I was the lowest person on the totem pole. I was, in effect, along for the ride.” That’s the first thing to know, he says.
The second is that for a pilot, a night flight like the one on which he and Umbach roared away begins many hours before the cockpit closes and the blue flame belches and you go barreling down the runway at 200 miles per hour. (Umbach and his lawyer did not return calls seeking comment on this story.) For starters, you squeeze into your bulky flight suit hours earlier in the day. You avoid certain foods because while you can urinate into bags, you can’t relieve your bowels. You watch “threat slides” designed to brief you on the possible dangers you’ll be facing-like the fate met a few weeks earlier by a Navy SEAL who was caught, tortured, and shot by men suspected of being members of al Qaeda. “Something to think about when considering whether to eject,” Schmidt says.
Among the most troubling considerations in the briefings leading up to that flight was the risk of encountering new surface-to-air missiles called Ringbacks that were being used by the Taliban to target coalition aircraft. “Ringbacks,” according to the briefings, “are 122-mm multiple-rocket launchers modified for use as surface-to-air missiles . . . [with a] maximum altitude of 56,000 feet.” Pilots flying in Afghanistan were warned that they might face those weapons in “ambush tactics.” At any time. Any place.
“The one thing we weren’t warned about was that there would be [friendly] live-fire exercises near Kandahar that night,” Schmidt says. “Nobody told us.” Indeed, everyone, including the military, acknowledges the lack of that crucial information.
…What happened next would form the crux of the case against Schmidt and Umbach. Schmidt says he believed that he and Umbach were being shot at and that he was defending Umbach, who was the mission’s lead pilot. “They keep firing every 30 or 40 seconds,” Schmidt recalls. “At one point, [Umbach radios that] it seems like they’re leading us”-firing out in front of the jet so they’ll run into the tracers.
Schmidt would later say that he thought the weapons were being fired up, an assertion supported by the admission of Canadian forces later that the soldiers had occasionally fired vertically. Having been briefed on the possibility of ambushes against coalition aircraft and the use by the Taliban of new types of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons, Schmidt says, he had to make a quick decision-otherwise their first indication of the weapon type might be a missile through the wing. Furthermore, Schmidt insists, he was not the flight lead, so he could not leave the area without an order from Umbach, who did not give one. Military prosecutors, by contrast, would offer very different theories: that Schmidt was rashly trying to score a kill, that he was too impatient to wait for a report on the nature of the fire, that he lingered in the area when he should have flown away to reassess. The military would insist that the arms were never a threat and should not have alarmed an experienced pilot like Schmidt.4
Reckless and irresponsible trigger (or pickle button) happy pilot or scapegoat for military leadership and an attempt to save grace with an important ally? These were the varied explanations that swirled across the headlines as the media and the military judicial system attempted to assign responsibility for this tragedy. As in all stories, there are always two sides. In this case, however, the official consensus seemed to have consistently weighed against the pilot in question, assigning the lion’s share of blame on him alone.
1. DAVID M. HALBFINGER. Hearing Starts in Bombing Error That Killed 4. New York Times. 15 Jan 2003.
2. U.S. Air Force Verdict. CBC News. 6 Jul 2004.
3. DAVID M. HALBFINGER. General Says 2 Pilots in Errant Bombing Broke the Most Basic Rules of Combat. New York Times. 22 Jan 2003.
4. BRYAN SMITH. Harry Schmidt’s War. Chicago Magazine. 28 Jun 2007.
5. THOM SHANKER with MARY DUENWALD. Bombing Error Puts a Spotlight On Pilots’ Pills. New York Times. 19 Jan 2003.