TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The Air Force began the court-martial yesterday of the only officer to be prosecuted in the downing of two U.S. helicopters over northern Iraq, an incident of called 'friendly fire' that took the lives of more than two dozen people and caused a rift within the Air Force.
Capt. Jim Wang, 29, is charged with three counts of dereliction of duty, together carrying a maximum penalty of nine months' imprisonment, dismissal from the Air Force and loss of veterans benefits.
Although Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year that the incident had resulted from "a shocking number of instances where individuals failed to do their jobs properly," the Air Force decided to prosecute only Captain Wang, who was aboard the flying command post called an AWACS -- airborne warning and control system -- radar plane.
Neither the pilots of the two Air Force F-15 fighter jets that actually fired on the helicopters nor any of the other officers or crew of the AWACS plane face court-martial. Charges of negligent homicide against one of the fighter pilots were dismissed.
The incident, which occurred on April 14, 1994, involved two U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters ferrying U.S. and allied officials and Kurds who were part of an international effort to shield the Kurds in northern Iraq from attack by Iraqi forces.
The F-15 fighter jets were patrolling a part of northern Iraq from which Iraqi military aircraft had been excluded after the Persian Gulf war. The fighter pilots mistook the Army helicopters for Soviet-made Iraqi helicopters and shot them down, killing all aboard both helicopters.
Captain Wang was the weapons controller aboard the AWACS plane: similar to an air traffic controller, but one who, in combat and on patrol, brings airplanes together instead of keeping them apart. "If we have fighters, if they see incoming hostile aircraft, we direct the fighters against that aircraft," he said in a recent interview.
He said in that interview that he never had an opportunity to talk to the F-15 pilots and that he was poorly served by fellow airmen whose job it was to keep the pilots posted.
From the outset, Captain Wang and his supporters in the 552nd Air Control Wing based here have maintained that the fighter pilots were responsible because they had visually identified the Blackhawks as hostile aircraft and that Captain Wang, monitoring radar screens and other electronic devices hundreds miles away, should not be blamed.
Captain Wang's defenders assert that he was chosen for prosecution because of an Air Force culture that defers to pilots -- especially fighter pilots -- over "backenders" such as the
technical crews who fly in the AWACS planes.
Maj. Larry Lacey, who was Captain Wang's immediate superior aboard the radar plane, said in an interview after he testified yesterday: "We didn't order the intercept, we didn't control the intercept and we didn't pull the trigger. So how they can have this one man held accountable for this is beyond me."
Major Lacey, who is retiring at the end of this month, was the only officer besides Captain Wang himself who was willing to discuss the case on the record yesterday.
Captain Wang said yesterday that he was being made a !B "scapegoat" for a military service that needed a conviction but would not prosecute its stars, the fighter pilots.
He had wanted to subpoena dozens of high-ranking witnesses, including Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who has criticized the Air Force's handling of the downing investigation. But Lt. Col Howard R. Altschwager, the presiding judge, is limiting witnesses to those directly involved with the incident.
In his opening statement, the lead prosecutor, Maj. Larry Dash, said that Captain Wang was being court-martialed because of the five or more men with whom he worked aboard the radar plane, including Major Lacey, Captain Wang was by training and experience in the best position to have comprehended the situation unfolding over the Iraqi desert.
"The evidence will show that this tragedy could have been avoided if the defendant had performed his duty that day as his duty required," Major Dash said. "The evidence will show that it could have been avoided if he had been properly supervising his tactical area of responsibility, if he had just called either of the F-15s and told them there were two friendly Blackhawk helicopters flying in the region."