05 April 2010

Why "COIN for Aviators" is so important

Update: I've written two three follow-on articles with more analysis:

Many of you have probably seen the leaked footage of an air strike in Baghdad which claimed the lives of two Reuters employees. (Those that haven't can view the footage here. Warning, the video is extremely graphic)

Let's take a look at the actions on the part of the air crew. (Gun bunnies in particular, take note) The video appears damning, but I'm reserving the bulk of the judgement until I read the official AR 15-6 investigation.

  • Despite the advances in thermal and optical sensors, it's still extremely difficult for an air crew to tell an insurgent from a civilian. The Apache pilots believed that they saw AK-47s and RPGs in the hands of the figures in the video. An examination of the video, however, is inconclusive. They could really be carrying anything. Some of the radio chatter from the infantry unit ("Bushmaster 26") indicates that there are insurgents walking about with AK-47s, and the cameras slung over the reporters shoulders might resemble some sort of rifle from a distance. (Edit: After watching the video a few times, I can see at least two figures with AK-47 style rifles as well as the RPG. Rewind was a luxury the pilots didn't have). It should be evident, based on this video, that although modern aerial platforms can collect a stunning amount of data, the most useful intelligence still comes from human networks, infantrymen on the ground, and the Mk-I eyeball.
  • After engaging roughly eight people with the Apache's 30mm cannon, a van arrives on the scene, with figures seen carrying the wounded bodies towards the van. According to the pilots, the men in the van are "collecting weapons", and are also shot with the Apache's 30mm cannon. News flash: picking up wounded bodies is not a hostile act.
  • Upon hearing that one of the victims is a young girl, the pilots laugh, "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids to a battle". Wrong.
  • The final engagement (the triangle-shaped building) allegedly houses six armed insurgents. However, (33:45-34:00) we see men walking into the building clearly without weapons in their hands (they are swinging their arms freely). The pilots fail to mention these two men walking into the building, nor do they mention another unarmed man (34:40) walking directly in front of the building as they shoot a Hellfire missile. Again, read FM 3-24, Appendix F. Another obvious COIN failure.
  • The same thing happens as they fire a second missile into the building--as figures are seen walking into the burning structure. No weapons appear to be in their hands, yet the pilots don't seem to mention them as they launch yet another Hellfire into the building. Were the troops in contact even taking fire after the first Hellfire launch?
Again, this is why I feel so strongly about COIN for aviators. I think that we fail to truly absorb counterinsurgency doctrine and theory, leading to incidents like this.

Official AR 15-6 Investigation, which reveals that the pilots were from the 1-227th Aviation Regiment of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade. This might be a good read. (H/T Schmedlap)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this precious insight on the situation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post and your service.

I have a question: Is the video feed *we* see actually the best view the Apache crew had, or did they have a better view available (ie, their eyes at that distance, or ???).

I am getting the impression the crew was making its decisions based on something identical to the video. True?


Unknown said...

Funny thing about that AR 15-6. One of the statements is labeled 2007-05-12. Whoops! I hope that isn't evidence of fabrication.

Also, the payments to the families of the injured girls were initially denied. I wonder what made them change their minds?

Also, I don't know if this is standard, but it seems like the investigation is structured in such a way as to justify their actions.
Most of the aviators reviewed the gun tape before providing their statements. One states that they identified the weapons in the gun tape after the engagement.
At one point the interviewer stops the interview so that they can watch the tape.

Throughout the interviewer asks leading questions; for example stipulating that the targets were armed in the question so that the aviators don't have to establish the fact in their spoken testimony.

Schmedlap said...


15-6 investigations are not typically done by individuals who have tons of training in evidence gathering and preservation, depositions, and other administrative procedures. They are typically done by whichever commissioned officer is available. When I did my first 15-6 investigation as a 1LT (to investigate the destruction of some night vision devices) I didn't even know what the heck a 15-6 was. I read through the regulation and was even more baffled. Add to that the hassle of finding all of the people whom you need to interview (sorry, so-and-so is on a 72-hour OP - come back on Thursday) and traveling to wherever they're at (a patrol that you could get blown up on) and printing documents in an environment that isn't exactly like a Kinkos, and so on. Sharpshooting the 15-6 is foolish. These guys had a dozen other things on their plates and were more than likely finger-drilling this thing and treating it as just a BS paper drill.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this sort of thing likely to inspire folks who might otherwise not attack US soldiers to try and kill some as an act of revenge?

If this sort of thing was done by foreign troops operating the US, I'd be inclined to try and take action against members of those forces.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I take issue with your questioning the judgment of the pilots on the scene who were acting in accordance with the RoE and the orders they were given. Neither you nor I were in their shoes that day.

You state "Upon hearing that one of the victims is a young girl, the pilots laugh, "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids to a battle". Wrong."

Do you understand that this pilot just realized he shot up a couple of kids? Do you not think he was trying to justify his own actions to himself in order to assuage any guilt he might be feeling?

Contrary to what any of you lift drivers out there might think, those of us who have had the privilege of being a "gun bunny" aren't warmongers. Most of us have spouses and children, and if I knew that I had killed an innocent kid, I'd probably want to throw up.

You also state "According to the pilots, the men in the van are "collecting weapons", and are also shot with the Apache's 30mm cannon. News flash: picking up wounded bodies is not a hostile act."

You are correct - picking up bodies is not, in and of itself, a hostile act. Picking up weapons, however, can very easily be construed as such. Whether or not these individuals were collecting weapons, I don't know - I can't tell from the video. Can you conclusively prove that they weren't?

I'm willing to give these pilots the benefit of the doubt based on the evidence I've seen. The Army has reviewed the incident and determined there was no misconduct. Until the Army says otherwise, I'll side with the pilots.

Phil Brewer, MD said...

With reference to the men carrying weapons, if you go back over the transcript concentrating on words rather than images, a pattern emerges that was a factor in this atrocity. One voice mentions that "there might be weapons" or "it might be a weapon" etc. The second voice, responding to other parties, states "they have weapons" as if it is an established fact rather than a suppositon or possibility. THis is like the game of telephone where one person whispers to the next who whispers to the next and by the time it gets around the table the message is very distorted. If they had been more careful about their conclusions they might have avoided this situation. But then, it is clear from their urgent requests for authorization to use force, At least a couple of them were really anxious to start shooting.

Anonymous said...

"At least a couple of them were really anxious to start shooting."

Of course they were! Ground troops had been taking fire from that vicinity for several hours and specifically called these guys in for support.

And your logic is flawed, as "there might be weapons" actually turned out to be weapons.

Anonymous said...

No, most are anxious because they live in a culture of kill. This reminds me of the video where American pilots shoot a British vehicle. The over-zealous pilot went as far to misconstrue the orange panels, which were given to friendlies, as a missile launcher.

The OPs point, which you seems to have passed over your head, is that if accurate information was passed on, a better decision could have been made. Instead, they innately pass over snippets of information so they can get the order to shoot.

Anonymous said...

"No, most are anxious because they live in a culture of kill."

Culture of kill? Are you kidding me? These guys are over there getting shot at and you accuse them of being trigger happy? These guys have undoubtedly watched American Soldiers die at the hands of the enemy, and you have the nerve to question their judgment?

Have you ever heard of something called the "fog of war"? Stuff happens, it happens fast, and when you feel like your life (or lives of your fellow Soldiers) is on the line, you make decisions based on self preservation. It's human nature. That leads me to my next point. You say they pass snippets of information. I say they passed information which was relevant to the situation. I don't know how many times you've sat in the front seat of the Apache attempting to quickly analyze the situation on the ground, but I can tell you that I've done it numerous times and it ain't easy, even for those of us who have done it for more than a few years.

Contrary to what you might believe, we (as in AH-64 pilots) don't go out there looking to kill people. We go out there to save American and coalition lives. Your accusation that these guys are just looking to shoot bad guys is misguided at best.

Anonymous said...

This slaughter is just of thousands.How many are hidden by the military establishment? Notice,in the 8 years of slaughtering defenceless Folks (1,200,000 and counting) not one sick b@sturd has been jailed or hung.
Listen you idiots,Iraq had NOTHING to do with Sept 11 2001 911
}sreal attacks. Had ever Iraq attacked or hurt Americans or that god forsacking country Isrhell?-NO!
Oh! troops follow orders you silly asses say--Idiots all of you :^/

Anonymous said...

The 2nd commenter asked whether the gunner of the helicopter was observing the scene through a video feed, or something with higher image quality.

I'm interested in this question too (I'm a civilian, not well informed about miltary hardware and practise): even if you allow for all the video compression artifacts of the YouTube video, there's something very disturbing about a gunner defending his unit and others via a rather low resolution video feed! Surely a helicopter gunship of this type has some kind of highly sophisticated optical scope, with all kinds of stabilization mechanisms to provide a good basis for decisions that, after all, are by nature, split-second, in the heat of battle, and with mortal consequences for everyone?

Anonymous said...

Forget my question above, the author of this blog more or less answered it in a recent posting which I hadn't read (I had followed a link directly to this present post).

I must admit I'm surprised that a gunner would be directing fire via a video screen (monochromatic, I'm assuming) such as the one in the picture, rather than a magnified optical direct-to-eyeball kind of gun sight, which I would have thought gives more certainty to the gunner. But what do I know about weapons or war?!?

Anonymous said...

if there was nothing wrong and all that, how come military refused to provide reuters with the video for two and a half years? that makes me wonder!

peaceprincess said...

What a sad, sad video.... I had tears streaming down my face. It was graphic and harrowing in b&w. I cannot possibly imagine the horror of colour. I didn't think it would be possible for me to watch any further after the photo-journalist was crawling on the curb, making a last-ditch attempt to get away surrounded by a huge puddle of his own blood. What a mess the war in Iraq is....

"The only winners in war are cemetaries..."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you said : "I'm willing to give these pilots the benefit of the doubt based on the evidence I've seen."

Do you really think that the "benefit of doubt" apply when you shot two journalist and two kids ?
I would have liked the pilot and the gunner to give those people the benefit of doubt too : they weren't chatting on a blog ; they were shooting 30mm bullets.