Video footage of a March 2003 friendly-fire incident in Iraq that left a British soldier dead was released by the Pentagon Tuesday, hours after a copy of the footage was posted on the website of one of Britain's largest newspapers.
CNN reports that the judge advocate general for US Central Command authorized the release of the cockpit video from one of the A-10 jets that attacked the British tank convoy, killing Lance Cpl. Matty Hull and wounding several others.
The tape will be released to the British coroner who requested it and to the family of the British soldier who was killed in the incident.
Earlier, Pentagon sources told CNN the video would not be released, contradicting an announcement by the UK prime minister's office...
The Pentagon's change of heart comes after The Sun, a British tabloid, posted the 15-minute video on its website. (Note: The video contains profanities after the pilots realize their error. An edited transcript of the video is also available.)
The video features the communication between the pilots of two American A-10 'tankbuster' jets and their ground controllers, as the pilots spot the convoy heading towards an Iraqi village. Although the convoy's tanks are displaying the bright orange panels meant to indicate friendly targets to aircraft, the pilots misidentify the panels as rocket launchers and are told by their ground controller that there are no "friendlies" operating in the area. Only after the jets attack does the ground controller report the presence of a friendly tank column, prompting despair in the pilots when they realize what's happened.
The Daily Telegraph reports that the Pentagon will not take any further disciplinary action against the two American pilots, a lieutenant colonel and a major in the 190th Fighter Squadron based in Boise, Idaho. The Guardian reports that the incident had already been investigated by American authorities, with cooperation from British military officials, and the two pilots were found to be not at fault.
"There was a complete investigation back in 2003 carried out by central command in cooperation with the UK," Lieutenant-Colonel Catherine Reardon, a US air force spokeswoman, said. "There were UK air and army LNOs (liaison officers) there. All the information was shared."
Major David Small, spokesman for US central command, said: "The inquiry concluded three main points: that the incident took place in a complex combat environment; that the pilots believed they were engaging enemy targets based on the best information they had at the time; the pilots followed the appropriate procedures and processes for engaging enemy targets.
"Because of these three things, the report deemed the pilots not culpable and, therefore, no disciplinary action was taken. The report basically concluded that, though the loss of life was tragic, it was indeed an accident."
The Guardian also writes that the report of Britain's involvement in the American inquiry contradicts the British Ministry of Defense's earlier claim that the cockpit recording did not exist, and calls into question "why British officials involved in the US military inquiry acquiesced in the official conclusion that the pilots were not to blame."
The British government is not alone in contradicting itself over the cockpit video. The Pentagon has also offered conflicting explanations of why the video was not released to the media. The Washington Post reports that Pentagon declined to declassify the video for security reasons.
While there have been numerous friendly-fire incidents, the U.S. government rarely releases video and audio recordings related to them. "If you show certain tactics and capabilities, of course your enemy can see it, too," said Air Force Lt. Col. Teresa Connor, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Central Command.
However, the Yorkshire Post of Leeds, England, cites Major David Small of US Central Command saying that there would have been no problem in declassifying the video, but he was not aware of any request to do so.
Major Small said: "We are the owners of the video and no request to provide an unclassified version was made to us."
Although he did not know whether the British government had asked for the tape to be declassified previously, he suggested that if it had, the military would have agreed.
"We have no problem declassifying something like this for a request when necessary. We do it for the media so I can't imagine we wouldn't do it for the British government."
Mr. Small added that while there are security issues with releasing the tape, they rest in the numbers shown in the jet's display, not in the content of the pilot-to-ground communications.
Reaction to the video from the British press has largely condemned the Pentagon and the American pilots. An editorial in the Guardian slams the "ignorance and incompetence" of the pilots and the " secretive and uncooperative" US military. The Herald of Scotland acknowledges that "Accidents happen in the fog of war and it is easy to second-guess events three years down the line from thousands of miles away," but writes that the Americans' long refusal to work with the British investigation " lays bare the fundamental asymmetry of the US-UK relationship."
Bronwen Maddox, chief foreign commentator of The Times of London, writes that "after watching the video, many will sympathise with the pilots of the two US A10 aircraft that fired on the British convoy near Basra. As they realise what they've done, the recording breaks up into anguished swearing; they could not be more stricken or berate themselves more harshly. The same cannot be said of the Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon."
But regardless of the British and American military's actions after the fact, the pilots at the time were "trying to balance competing demands," Ward Carroll, former US Navy pilot and editor of Military.com, told the BBC.
"If I am too cautious and we get a village taken out, the question would arise: 'Why did you not drop your weapons when you were cleared to fire?'"
On the other hand, he added, the pilot saw the signal that should have told him he was not looking at hostile troops.
"He sees the orange panels. Now he knows more than anyone else.
"This is a classic friendly-fire fog-of-war scenario: Bad intelligence, garbled communications, time and geography against the guys in the airplane. But at the end of the day, orange equals friendly - and you sit on your hands."
The BBC also writes that while technology, known as Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), does exist to help pilots distinguish between allied and hostile targets, its usage is limited due to security and logistical considerations.
[Charles Heyman, editor of Armed Forces of the UK, said] "The moment you put IFF equipment on a vehicle it has to start transmitting and the enemy can pick up your signal. Straightaway you've compromised your position as well as the number of vehicles."
The [Ministry of Defence] said IFF is primarily used in aircraft. In 1991 they had looked at introducing it to ground vehicles, but abandoned the plan because it would have generated too much information to be useful.
A spokesman said: "The amount of data would be massive, and it would be impossible for commanders to get a real-time picture. So it would be more dangerous than not having it."