All Commands to Teach Lessons Learned from Kunduz Airstrike Tragedy


Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has ordered the military to teach the lessons learned from the Kunduz airstrike that destroyed a hospital and killed at least 42 to all units before they deploy, with an emphasis on what to do when their technology breaks down.

"I am committed to ensuring that similar incidents do not occur in the future," Carter said in a memo to the service secretaries and combatant commanders that went out last Friday after the release of the 3,000-page U.S. Central Command investigation of the tragic incident in the early morning hours last Oct. 3.

Carter called on leaders to "incorporate the Kunduz scenario into pre-deployment training as an example of the complex environment into which units are deploying." He also ordered them to "establish a standard operating procedure to address contingencies when systems fail."

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Carter's directive urged the leadership to "identify incompatible technological systems and generate solutions to enhance interoperability among operational forces."

In a Pentagon briefing last Friday on the investigation, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the new CentCom commander, said, "The investigation ultimately concluded that this tragic incident was caused by a combination of human errors, compounded by process and equipment failures," that resulted in the devastating attack on the Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) Trauma Center.

The 3,000-page investigative report itself called the 30-minute and eight second attack a "disproportional response to a threat that didn't exist."

Votel singled out the failure of the TV sensor aboard the AC-130U gunship which carried out the airstrike on the north-central Afghan city. The sensor was supposed to transmit and receive images of the target for relay to the JTAC (Joint Tactical Air Controller) and the ground forces commander with the Special Forces team calling for the strike.

"This was a failure at that point of this -- this specific radio system and antenna that is designed to receive data and transmit data to the ground," Votel said.

"They were absolutely trying to do the right thing," Votel said of the aircrew and the Special Forces team. "There was no intention on any of their parts to take a short cut, or to violate any rules that were laid out for them."

"Unfortunately, they made a wrong judgment in this particular case, and ended up targeting this Doctors Without Borders facility," Votel said. The actual target was an Afghan National Directorate of Security building about 400 meters away from the MSF compound that had been taken over by the Taliban.

"The first equipment failure we talked about was the radio system, the antenna system that prevented them from receiving digital information that would have told them of no strike areas and other things, and then would have been able -- allowed them to send a picture to the ground," Votel said.

The result was that "there was not complete situational awareness on the ground with what the aircraft was seeing. There was not complete situational awareness from the aircraft with what was happening with the ground force," Votel said.

The confusion led to a series of back and forth communications between the aircrew and the JTAC, and among the aircrew members themselves, the investigation showed.

Just before the gunship started firing, the aircrew's navigator and Fire Control Officer (FCO) had a brief discussion:

FCO: "I don't want to tell you how to do your job but ..."

Navigator: "Only slightly confusing. I feel like -- lets get on the same page for what target of opportunity means to you and what target of opportunity means to me."

FCO: "I mean when I hear target of opportunity like that, I'm thinking (redacted) you're going out, you find bad things and you shoot them."

In his memo, Carter suggested that the Kunduz failure was indicative of communications problems across the military. He ordered the military to review its policies and rules of engagement to "clarify conflicting or confusing directives." He also cited "problematic guidance" from top commands and problems with "hierarchies of competing policies and authorities."

The possibility of the failure of the various GPS, communications and computer systems, and their vulnerability to being hacked by an enemy, has been a growing concern for the Pentagon.

Last year, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, brought back courses in celestial navigation after a hiatus of nearly two decades.

"We went away from celestial navigation because computers are great," Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rogers, deputy chairman of the academy's Department of Seamanship and Navigation, told the Annapolis Capital Gazette. "The problem is, there's no backup."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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