In the aftermath of August's deadly CH-47 Chinook crash that claimed the lives of 38 men, including 17 elite SEALs, people in and out of uniform wanted someone to blame.
Did the National Guard aircraft or aircrews get jumped into a game they weren't ready for -- should the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) have been flying that night? Did the local special operations commanders rush headlong into a dangerous situation and needlessly put the men at risk? People wanted it to make sense, and in this context, they wanted it to be someone's fault.
But it was no one's fault, the official investigation concluded this week. According to the unclassified summary of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt's report, everyone involved did what they always do on special operations raids; there was no problem with commanders or the troops or the procedures involved. The air crews were totally qualified and their birds were fully equipped, Colt wrote. All the local commanders involved were read in on the mission details and they gave their authorization. When a Taliban insurgent hit the helo with his rocket-propelled grenade, there was nothing anyone could have done.
Still -- hindsight is crystal clear. Even though Colt did not find anyone technically at fault, his report does draw at least two lessons from the incident that could change the way special operations raids work in the future. (His full, classified report may have more.)
First, Colt writes that despite the Taliban's claims, the Chinook downing was not the payoff of a baited ambush -- the whole operation was not just a trap, as insurgents claimed, to try to kill as many special operators as possible. But what is true, he wrote, is that the local bad guys had been hearing American aircraft overhead for more than three hours. Two Chinooks, two AH-64 Apaches, an AC-130 Spectre and other aircraft, probably unmanned aerial vehicles, all were operating in the airspace over the Tangi Valley. This "heightened state of alert" increased the risks that insurgents eventually would take a shot at one of the aircraft, as the bad guys could clearly tell the Americans were going to linger for the duration of the assault.
Second, Colt writes that the special operations task force commander "did not reallocate the ISR aircraft to ensure surveillance coverage" for both the first-wave Ranger unit that made the initial assault and the incoming SEALs aboard the Chinook. In other words, commanders probably assumed the SEALs would land and go to work rounding up Taliban stragglers without incident; in the heat of the moment it didn't occur to them to shift one of their Predator or other surveillance birds to watch the Chinook's landing zone. The mission and aviation commanders already knew the LZ because they'd considered using it for an earlier mission, and probably thought it would be fine.
If the Americans had been watching the Chinook's LZ before it made its approach, could they have spotted the nearby Taliban fighters and waved off the helicopter -- or sent an Apache in ahead to clear out the bad guys? We'll never know. Here's what Colt wrote in the conclusion to his report summary:
The investigation disclosed that the special operations task force commander did not reallocate [the ISR aircraft] to ensure surveillance coverage for the ongoing (Ranger-led assault force) and the inbound Immediate Reaction Force mission [the SEALs]. While this finding was not a cause of the shoot-down or crash, it is a noteworthy aspect of the compressed planning process that should be addressed in future IRF missions. The evidence also disclosed that the employment of aircraft overhead prior to a helicopter insertion should be better synchronized to minimize possible early warning to the enemy of imminent ground operations.Overall, however, Colt's report makes clear that the Rangers, SEALs and their supporting air crews will continue to get these kinds of missions and operate more or less as they have.