April 20, 2002



KANDAHAR -- With a jumpmaster's slap, the commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan sent four dead paratroopers home yesterday after an emotional ceremony attended by coalition soldiers at their base in Kandahar.

Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran walked up to each coffin and tapped it -- something a jumpmaster does to a paratrooper before a jump off an aircraft.

"You're okay, jumper," said Stogran, standing at attention. "Have a good one. Airborne!"

--The Patricias' way of sending their own into the next world, from the Toronto Sun

Posted by BruceR at 04:03 PM



One has to wonder of the sense of a Californian writing Canada's national newspaper today to call Canadian soldiers "halfwits," but there you have it. In an effort to keep the discourse elevated on the Canadian end, however, let's just engage the argument that night-time live firing in a war zone is a bad idea.

Never mind that the live fire range was apparently designated as such by the commander of the 101st Airborne brigade on the ground which the Canadians were attached to... presumably an American. If we assume, as will likely be proven clear, that the pilot's "self-defence" claim was bogus, we can say this for certain. An F-16 pilot, flying over Afghanistan, saw flashes of firing on the ground. Not knowing what they were, he dropped a highly accurate bomb on them. Now, based solely on the knowledge there were some small arms being fired in Afghanistan that night, those fatalities could just as easily have been:

*American soldiers engaging an enemy;
*U.N. peacekeepers fighting for their lives;
*pro-American Afghan forces in a firefight;
*the troops of the local warlord celebrating somebody's birthday.

If any of those circumstances had been the case, and other forces had been bombed, would that have been their fault, too? How, other than instructing pilots to verify their targets before they kill them, are any of these situations avoided every single night? "Bomb first and ask questions later" is not a useful tenet of close air support in any situation. No, as said earlier, if that pilot knew he was above 9,000 feet and thus immune to all ground fire when he dropped, as he almost certainly was, he was simply exhibiting a trigger-happy reckless disregard toward whoever's forces were unlucky enough to have been noticed by him that night. There's no other viable explanation.

Posted by BruceR at 03:57 PM



I've been asking myself the last couple days if I ever had the opportunity to work with Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, one of the Afghanistan dead, who spent much of his too-brief military career with the 48th Highlanders here at my own armoury in Toronto. I'm afraid I can't recall such an occasion: he was an infantry corporal, I was an artillery officer, and it was a big armoury. Still, I know a number of soldiers who are no doubt still reeling at losing a friend and a comrade. All I can say is, Dileas Gu Brath, lads, Dileas Gu Brath.

Posted by BruceR at 10:20 AM



One fact, and one fact only, will determine whether the fatalities in Afghanistan were due to an honest misunderstanding, or an American pilot playing cowboy. The question of whether the act was a legitimate act of self-defence or not depends on one objective criteria: the F-16s' altitude when it launched its weapon.

Again, air defence is a topic I know a little about for a change. And dusting off the old pams, and trying to figure out what happened, one thing becomes clear. Let's say the pilot saw tracer fire (either across the ground or richocheting up) and wasn't just firing at ground muzzle flashes (the pilot expressly stated, by all accounts that he thought he was being fired at, and there's no way you could rationally assume that from a few muzzle flashes). If it was tracer fire from the live fire exercise, that means he saw Canadian .30 calibre or .50 calibre machine guns. (The other possibility, that the pilot mistook signal or illumination flares for surface-to-air missiles, for instance, is just not credible to anyone who's seen their signatures). Most likely it would be .50s, as they do throw out an impressive tracer display. In a company-sized exercise dismounted, it's unlikely more than a couple would have been in use.

Okay, so the most plausible explanation is the pilot saw 1 or 2 .50 cals firing, and thought the tracers were aimed at him. What could he have legitimately assumed they were? A .50 cal tracer could easily be mistaken for a Soviet issue 14.5 mm machine gun, like the DShk-38, of which Taliban units might still have a few. It might also, in a stretch, be mistaken for the much larger 23 mm cannon (ie, a ZU-23). It's safe to say any Afghan rebels are not going to have anything larger or more sophisticated. (Indeed it's hard to imagine them unleashing a 23, even if they had one, to take nighttime potshots at a almost untouchable fast jet... no one's that stupid.)

What are the vertical ranges of these weapons? The maximum effective vertical range of a 14.5 mm MG is 5,000 feet, straight up (less on a slant), same as the .50 cal. Obviously, these are theoretical AA ranges; at night, without radar guidance, the chances of a single MG actually hitting fast air at that altitude are asymptotic to zero. The max vertical range of a 23 mm is 9,000 feet.

The pilots had to have known this. They would have known that flight over Afghanistan at heights higher than 9,000 feet makes you immune to all but acts of God, or maybe a mujahid-surplus Stinger. (Normally fast jets actually fly at 16,000 feet or higher, which makes them immune to any shoulder-launched SAMs as well).

In other words, self-defence is only remotely, conceivably legit if the plane was flying abnormally low, ie at 9,000 feet or less. Any higher than that, and it is almost incontravertible that this was an American Top Gun wannabe who wanted to strike a blow for the WTC before his tour ended and dropped a bomb on some random muzzle flashes he saw. All four military inquiries assembling now in the two countries know this: the altimeter (or the AWACS tracking plot) for that aircraft holds pretty much all the solid information they need.

What if the plane was below 9,000? Well then, the questions get tougher, like why the 101st Airborne (it wasn't just the Canadians) had designated a training area and the Air Force hadn't been informed, or hadn't informed its pilots, etc. There'll be a lot of blame to go around, and everyone will point fingers at someone else. But I suspect the altimeter will tell the tale, and this will all be pretty cut and dried in the end. Whether the American military justice system will satiate Canadian desires for a reckoning, however, is a whole other question.

Posted by BruceR at 01:16 AM