IT now appears that no Air Force personnel will face more than relatively minor administrative penalties for involvement in last year's "friendly fire" shoot-down of two US helicopters over Iraq.
On June 20, a US Air Force jury found Capt. Jim Wang innocent on all counts of dereliction of duty in the incident. Captain Wang was the senior director on the Airborne Warning and Control System radar plane that was monitoring the area where the shoot-down occurred. He was the only person to face court-martial punishment for involvement in the tragedy.
Wang's lawyer had argued that the AWACS officer was being made a scapegoat for something that was in fact a failure of the overall Air Force traffic control system. For instance, testimony at the trial indicated that the Army Blackhawk helicopters may have received permission to enter the restricted "no-fly" area over Iraq without official AWACS coverage - a failure of communication at the top.
One of the fighter pilots who downed the copters, Capt. Eric Wickson, admitted that he visually misidentified the Blackhawks as Iraqi Hinds. The prosecution argued that Wang committed serious errors that lead directly to the shoot-down. Replays taken from one of the AWACS terminals seemed to show green dots where the Army helicopters were located. This would have identified them conclusively as friendly aircraft - information that should have been passed to all other US planes in the area.
Wang testified that he saw no green dots on his screen, however. Radar operators on the plane corroborated his testimony.
Wang noted that the F-15s, which attacked the helicopters had more than adequate electronic equipment to identify the Blackhawks on their own, and that the pilots thought they had made a visual check of their target before firing. "If I knew what the F-15s were going after, I would have stopped the engagement," he said.
The 10-officer panel took only five hours of deliberation to reach its verdict. Air Force officials say that at this time they have no plans to charge others in the incident. Charges against one of the pilots involved were dropped earlier. Five others involved in the shoot-down were also cleared.