This story was originally published on April 29, 2016.
The minutes leading up to the U.S. bombing of a Doctors Without Borders MSF hospital bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan, were filled with hesitation and uncertainty, according to a U.S. Central Command report released Friday.
As the The pilots and crew in command of the AC-130 gunship — an aircraft armed with side-firing cannons and guns — flew flying toward their intended target Oct. 3, a Taliban command center some 400 yards from the civilian hospital, they did not fully understand presumed target location in Afghanistan did not fully understand the orders they had received prior to the Oct. 3 strike, according to conversations between crew members and ground forces described labeled within the report. The airmen had been dispatched on Oct. 3 to hit a Taliban command center some 400 yards from the hospital.
The crew took off without "any printed current operational graphics showing the planned operating area," the report said. And due to communication malfunction, they could not receive any additional information into "the AC-130 guidance systems containing the proper data for the Kunduz area." because of a communication malfunction, the report noted.
After the crew returned from a second refueling in the area, the navigator, not identified in the report, established a radio communication with the primary jJoint tTerminal aAttack cController, or JTAC, for the ground forces on the ground. The JTAC He provided the general location of interest for the aircraft. Line of sight was also not working because of a battery shortage. But, as the sensor operator noted, that location turned out to be "the middle of this field with a bunch of small buildings" on it.
The conversation aboard the aircraft shows they continued to have difficulty locating the target.
The sensor operator, also known as "TV," pointed out one possibility.
"Well, unless the grids are off, this is the only large complex in the area; they have busses [sic] on the west side," he said.
Sensor operation: Well, unless the grids are off, this is the only large complex in the area; they have busses [sic] on the west side.
Fire control officer: I've got [redacted].
Sensor operator: That's what I copied too, but it just [redacted] you into the middle of this field with a bunch of small buildings.
Navigator: How far off is that larger complex from the grids?
Sensor operator: About 300 meters.
Navigator: 300 meters southwest?
Sensor operator: Affirm.
Fire control officer: TV, I'm just going to update that off of you, since that's most likely what it is, so if you can just track there.
The compound they had identified was actually the Doctors Without Borders Trauma Center.
The crew was then advised the compound they should pursue was under Taliban control, and that "nine personnel were observed as hostile." They learned the objective was to clear the National Directorate of Security headquarters building believed to be occupied by insurgents.
The crew was then advised their intended target compound they should pursue, the headquarters of the National Directorate of Security headquarters building, was under Taliban control, and that "nine personnel were observed as hostile." The mission objective they learned the objective was to clear the compound of National Directorate of Security headquarters building, believed to be occupied by insurgents.
The report notes that sSome minutes later, the sensor operator once again questioned the location they had identified, which in turn was the Doctors Without Borders hospital location. He provided the crew with a new target, the NDS facility. while was observing to be the intended hostile area, as the the navigator continued to focus on the hospital location.
The navigator only answered, "Copy," while continuing to focus on the hospital location. to the sensor operator after he had described what he was observing. The pilot did not answer.
The sensor operator once again reassessed the location and "clearly stated to the crew that the grid position placed his sensor directly on top of a different compound (the NDS facility) not the open field or hospital," the report said.
The photo within the CENTCOM report shows the proximity of the first acquired location, the open field, to the Doctor's Without Border's trauma center, to the NDS facility.
Photo Credit: CENTCOM
The report notes the navigator did not pass on the sensor operator's information onto an authority, unnamed, but instead asked for a description of the target. Someone answered:
"GFC [ground forces command] says there is an outer perimeter wall, with multiple buildings inside of it. [break]. Also, on the main gate, I don't know if you're going to be able to pick this up, but it's also an arch-shaped gate. How copy?"
The crew, upon looking more closely, discussed among themselves which compound better matched the description they had of the targetof the it matched the Doctor's Without Border's hospital better than the NDS. At this time, ground forces were planning to move as backup to secure the NDS facility after its takedown.
Over twenty-minutes later, an authority, unidentified, told the crew after the hostile facility was cleared, they were to clear a "second compound," not described in detail. "We will also be doing the same thing of softening the target for partner forces."
The conversation continued:
FCO: So he wants us to shoot?
Navigator: Yeah, I'm not positive what softening means?
Pilot: Ask him.
The crew looked for clarification. An answer came over. "GFC's [Ground Forces Command] intent is to destroy targets of all opportunity that may impede partner forces' success. How copy?"
The crew requested another clarification, and "observed that no personnel at the observed facility (MSF Trauma Center) appeared to be REDACTED which was never passed to the GFC."
The navigator and FCO eventually had this exchange about the operation as a whole, not just the intended location:
Navigator: I feel like — let's get on the same page for what target of opportunity means to you, and what target of opportunity means to me.
FCO: I mean when I'm hearing target of opportunity like that, I'm thinking REDACTED — you're going out, you find bad things and you shoot them
As the minutes ticked down, and as mMore inconsistencies arose— some of the crew even questioned mission tobjectives, according to the report — were observed, as the crew began to gear up the aircraft for a with the intent to strike. Six minutes before the crew opened fire, until strike, tTthe navigator was told by an unnamed authority to "do a go for a PAX cocktail," during their strike, which he did not understand. The ensuing conversationHe received this answer, which showed revealed the crew was still foggy on the exact location of the target:
Navigator: Go for REDACTED
REDACTED person: Roger, be advised to do a PAX cocktail. (non standard terminology)
Navigator: What did he just say?
UNKNOWN: Something about confirming a PAX cocktail.
Navigator: PAX cocktail?
Unknown: I assume he's referring to MAMs; get confirmation and as well, while you're at it, get a building that he actually wants to strike, confirm that it's a T-shaped building in the center of the compound.
Even with a broken conversation over the airwaves, an unidentified individual It was eventually verified the AC-130 should strike a "T-shaped building."
Still, within two minutes of engaging the target, the pilot once again asked for confirmation:
Pilot: Hey confirm that we are cleared on people in this compound and not just [redacted] this building.
It was confirmed.
At approximately 2:08 A.M.a.m, the AC-130 gunship — an aircraft armed with side-firing cannons and guns — fired the first rounds were fired at the compound, which tore into the also fired into the roof of the Doctor's Without Border's trauma center — the T-shaped building.
The attack did not end until about 2:37 a.m., after several frantic calls from doctors at the hospital.
A total of 211 rounds had been fired into the compound, according to the report, killing 42 people. The compound received 211 rounds fired, the report said.
No criminal charges have been leveled against U.S. military personnel for the mistakes that killed 42 people, U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, the new head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Friday. Votel said that the trauma center was on a no-strike list but that the gunship crew didn't have access to the list.
Votel did not discuss Air Force operational procedures in regards to the attack. He said the crew's names would not be publicly identified.
About 16 U.S. military personnel, including a two-star general, have been disciplined for mistakes that led to the bombing, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.