2 U.S. troops killed by drone ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan


— In what appeared to be the first case of U.S. troops being hit by
“friendly fire” from a drone aircraft, two American servicemen were
killed by a Hellfire missile after apparently being mistaken for
insurgents moving to attack another group of Marines in southern Afghanistan.

A Predator drone fired the missile that killed a Marine and a Navy medic in Helmand province last week, according to two Pentagon officials.

Drones have been involved in airstrikes that
accidentally killed Afghan and Pakistani civilians since the U.S. began
using them in the region a decade ago, becoming a flashpoint for
anti-American sentiment. But until now, no U.S. service members have
been reported killed by an unmanned Air Force aircraft in error.

Dozens of Predators and more heavily armed Reaper drones fly every day over Afghanistan, operated remotely by pilots at air bases in the United States.
Cameras aboard the drones also provide live video feeds to ground
combat units, which have come to rely on the drones for surveillance as
well as for air cover.

“With increased (drone) usage, there are going to be more incidents like this,” said Louis Tucker, the former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee
and a Navy Seal in the reserves. “People have an expectation that
because it’s automated, there won’t be mistakes, and that’s never the
case in war.”

The missile strike occurred about 9:30 a.m.
last Wednesday near the crossroads town of Sangin. The former insurgent
stronghold has seen a resurgence of clashes in recent weeks between
Marines and Taliban fighters, the officials said.

Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy D. Smith of Arlington, Texas, and Seaman Benjamin D. Rast of Niles, Mich., were hit as they moved on foot in a group trying to reach other Marines who had been pinned down by insurgent gunfire.

One Pentagon official said the Marines
called in the airstrike when they saw images on the video feed of
unknown men heading toward them. It wasn’t immediately clear why the
rescue team headed their way was not clearly identified.

The video feeds sometimes provide blurry or unclear
images of conditions on the ground, making it hard for screeners
responsible for searching the video for possible targets to always
understand what they are seeing.

In a statement, the US.-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan confirmed that two service members had been killed in a coalition strike but did not disclose the role played by the Predator.

“An ISAF Joint Command incident assessment team is
looking into the incident,” the statement said. “A formal investigation
will determine the circumstances that led to the incident.”

Smith and Rast were with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, a reservist unit based in Houston that deployed to Afghanistan last month on a seven-month rotation.

Rast’s father, Robert, told a television station in South Bend, Ind., that the Pentagon had informed him that his son had been killed by a Hellfire missile.

Rast, 23, joined the Navy about a year ago and was stationed in San Diego at the Naval Medical Center before being assigned as a medic to the Marine regiment prior to its deployment to Afghanistan last month.

Robert Rast told the Houston Chronicle that he had talked to his son about going to Afghanistan around Christmas.

“I said, ‘Son, I won’t lie to you. I’m worried about
you and your deployment. What if something happens to you? What will I
say to everybody.’ He said, ‘Dad, just tell them I wanted to be on the
front lines covering the guy on my right and covering the guy on my
left. … You won’t have to say any more.’ “

Smith, 26, joined the Marines in 2003 and had served three tours in Iraq. He joined the reserves after leaving active duty and was called up to Afghanistan.

In a statement to the Chronicle, Smith’s family
said, “The Bible says that we are to run the race that is set before
us. Jeremy did that even though it was a difficult race. … As a
leader with experience, he felt that he needed to go back, to ensure
that his guys made it home safely. That is why he did four tours.”

Senior U.S. Air Force officers say that mistakes involving
drones are rare because special cameras and sensors enable drones to
observe potential targets far longer and with more precision than
conventional aircraft and other surveillance platforms.

But with an increasing number of drones flying in Afghanistan, the possibility of mistaken airstrikes also has increased.

In one instance last February in Oruzgan Province,
at least 15 men were killed and 12 people were wounded, including a
woman and three children, after a Predator drone crew mistook them for
insurgents. In that case, the missile strikes were carried out by
attack helicopters.


(c) 2011, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.