Air Force toughens 'friendly fire' sanctions


WASHINGTON -- The Air Force plans to announce today that it is effectively ending the careers of at least seven officers who initially were given slaps on the wrist for their role in the downing of two Army helicopters over Iraq last year.

The unusual action comes as the result of a growing anger among lawmakers, surviving family members and even senior military officials that no one had been held accountable for the "friendly fire" incident that killed 26 people, including 15 Americans.

This feeling intensified after the acquittal in June of the only person to face a court-martial in the accidental shooting, Capt. Jim Wang.

Although the seven were reprimanded months ago for their involvement in the incident, several have received favorable evaluations, awards and choice assignments.

But responding to the growing pressure, the Air Force is grounding the two F-15 fighter pilots who mistakenly shot down the U.S. helicopters and three officers on the radar plane who failed to prevent the tragedy. The five -- including Captain Wang, whom a military jury in Oklahoma cleared of all criminal charges in June -- will be grounded for at least three years and assigned to nonflying jobs.

Angry that officers who were reprimanded for their roles in the tragedy were promoted or awarded plum jobs, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, wrote scathing "letters of -- evaluation" for the permanent files of the two F-15 pilots, three radar-plane controllers and two generals overseeing the operation in northern Iraq, citing their poor judgment and failure to uphold Air Force standards.

General Fogleman, a 53-year-old decorated fighter pilot in Vietnam, also rebuked at least seven officers who wrote the favorable evaluations.

Such unusual criticism from the Air Force's top officer effectively dooms the officers' careers. "Their chances for promotion now are essentially zero," said a senior Pentagon official. "I wouldn't be surprised to see them retire."

Nonetheless, the Air Force action is unlikely to appease angry family members or lawmakers, who are determined to hold more hearings on the causes of the downing and the extensive investigation that followed.

"All I can say is this is an effort to suddenly make the military look accountable when a congressional investigation is taking place," said Joan Piper, the mother of 2nd Lt. Laura Ashley Piper of the Air Force, a victim in the downing.

The Air Force's handling of the matter has raised serious questions about a military culture that produced commanders who rewarded the same officers they had reprimanded for one of the worst accidents in U.S. military history.

The incident on April 14, 1994, occurred while the two F-15C Eagle fighter pilots were patrolling what was considered a no-flight zone above Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, over which Iraqi helicopters and planes had been banned after the Persian Gulf war.

The pilots mistook the two Army Blackhawk helicopters for Soviet-made Hind aircraft and fired on them. Everyone aboard was killed.

Prosecutors, who had dropped charges against four other officers, argued that Captain Wang was the person most responsible for the deaths because he failed to issue a warning that could have averted the catastrophe. Captain Wang's supporters said he was being made a scapegoat and a 10-officer tribunal agreed by acquitting him.

John P. White, the deputy defense secretary, ordered the Air Force and Army on July 24 to review the adequacy of the administrative sanctions issued in connection with the downing, and any discrepancy between those punishments and subsequent evaluations, awards and promotions.

In addition to bringing criminal charges, the military may also punish offenders with administrative sanctions. And that happened to many of the pilots, radar-plane crew members and supervising officers in the Iraq operation. But these reprimands do not go into an officer's permanent personnel file.

More significantly, commanders in this case did not seem to take the reprimands into account when promotions, awards and new jobs were handed out, Pentagon officials said. The Air Force review will try to fix this problem, the officials said.

Regarding the specific action taken, Pentagon officials said that the F-15 pilots being assigned desk jobs are Lt. Col. Randy May and Capt. Eric Wickson, who each shot down one helicopter.

Captain Wickson's assignment as a flight instructor at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi has been canceled. Colonel May will be transferred as commander of an F-15 squadron in Germany.

The radar-plane controllers who have been grounded are Captain Wang, Capt. Joseph Halcli and Lt. Ricky Wilson, Pentagon officials said.

In addition to these five officers, General Fogleman wrote critical evaluations of two generals. One is Brig. Gen. Jeffrey S. Pilkington, who was the commander of the operation in northern Iraq from his headquarters in Incirlik, Turkey. General Pilkington is now vice commander of the Air Intelligence Agency in San Antonio.

The other is Brig. Gen. Curtis Emery II, who was a colonel and General Pilkington's top aide for air operations at the time of the incident. General Emery is now a senior officer with the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization.

Under Pentagon rules, both generals could be forced to retire at the colonel rank. It was unclear if the Air Force would transfer them to other jobs or seek to demote them in retirement.

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