Morale: Suing Soldiers For Screwing Up


July 28, 2008: The British Army is going to try one of its forward air controllers for manslaughter, because he gave an American F-15 overhead the wrong coordinates, and a smart bomb hit British troops, instead of nearby Taliban fighters. At first, it was believed that the American F-15 was at fault. But the F-15E recorded the conversation with the air controller, and had video of the bomb drop. It was obvious that the F-15E was given the wrong coordinates. This was a rare case of friendly fire involving smart bombs.

There are far fewer "friendly fire" incidents since the introduction of GPS smart bombs a decade ago. But that precision can backfire if the air controller or pilot use the wrong coordinates. Before smart bombs, such airborne friendly fire was much more common, and accepted as a combat risk. The stress and chaos of combat, plus the unreliable (compared to guided smart bombs) nature of dropping "dumb bombs" eliminated any thought of trying pilots or air controllers for manslaughter if there were friendly casualties.

By holding pilots and ground controllers criminally liable for mistakes made in combat, there will be less incentive for anyone to do either job. It's somewhat easier for pilots these days, as the latest systems take the GPS coordinates in digital form, from the guy on the ground, and enter them into the GPS guided bomb. There have been suggestions that such errors could be avoided if individual troops carried a tracking device, that would enable the fire control system on the aircraft to check for how close any friendly troops are to where the bomb is supposed to land. But something like this is some years away.

There have been attempts, so far, to sue the manufacturers of the smart bombs and other electronics involved, when a bomb simply fails to perform and kills friendly troops. Then there is a legal concept, "agent and principal", which holds higher-ups responsible for failures of subordinates. Thus the manufacturers of malfunctioning smart bombs are held liable, and not the air force technicians that take care of the smart bombs, and load them on to the aircraft. The same principle could be applied in the case of the British ground controller, and have officers in his chain of command (who selected and trained him) charged. But this is unlikely.

Lawyers are increasingly involved with battlefield operations. Not in the actual fighting, but in deciding if a decision is legal, and in prosecuting those who made errors that resulted in "unreasonable" deaths. This sort of thing is possible, and tolerated by the troops, because Western forces have a huge technological and training advantage over their opponents. Thus there often is a few minutes available for consulting with the lawyers. Sometimes there isn't, in which case the enemy either gets away, or a commander risks his career and proceeds without a lawyers permission.




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