Deadly accident shows ‘smart bomb’ isn’t perfect

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Guided by satellite, the military’s newest "smart bomb" is designed to hit its target with great precision in any weather.

The system is not without risk, as was evident Wednesday in Afghanistan, with deadly results: three soldiers and five Afghan fighters killed and dozens of others wounded when a bomb carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives landed about 100 yards from their position.

Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Petithory, Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser and Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis died after a U.S. bomb missed its Taliban target north of Kandahar. All were members of the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Petithory, 32, was from Massachusetts; Prosser, 28, was from California; and Davis, 39, was from Tennessee.

All but three of the 20 Americans wounded were evacuated from the scene, first to a U.S. Marine base south of Kandahar and then out of Afghanistan. The injuries to the 17 taken outside of Afghanistan "vary from moderate to severe," a statement from U.S. Central Command said.

All were described as special operations forces, but officials would not say whether they were Green Berets, Rangers, or other kinds of special operations troops. It appeared likely most were Green Berets.

Eighteen Afghan anti-Taliban fighters are being treated on U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea, the statement said. Eight are on the USS Peleliu and 10 are aboard the USS Bataan.

Hamid Karzai, the southern Pashtun leader and newly designated head of the provisional government in Afghanistan, was in the area where the bomb landed but was not seriously wounded, Pentagon officials said.

The accident left officials struggling for an explanation.

"Sometimes things just don’t work out perfectly," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said at the Pentagon.

"These are human-made, human-designed systems. They’re going to have flaws that are going to either be built in or that are going to occur. We have not perfected a technology that is perfect in its execution."

It was unclear how the bomb intended for Taliban militia hit teams of special forces and anti-Taliban fighters.

The weapon was a JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition. A $20,000 kit attached to the tail of a conventional 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound warhead is supposed to produce a guided glide bomb, accurate to within at least 30 feet.

The Boeing-made JDAM can be launched from 15 miles away and an altitude of 45,000 feet. It was developed after the Persian Gulf War showed the need for precision weapons that would not be affected by clouds or any kind of conditions.

The incident Wednesday was the third JDAM accident known so far in the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan. The Pentagon says it has used 3,500 of those bombs against the Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists.

One accident in late November in which five Americans were injured is under investigation. In early October, four Afghans were reported killed because someone gave the wrong coordinates for the target, the Pentagon has said.

"The JDAMS are very accurate weapons," said Bob Algarotti, Boeing spokesman. The bomb is only "as accurate as the coordinates it’s given," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he has ordered an investigation into Wednesday’s incident.

Stufflebeem said the latest accident does not give reason to be skeptical about JDAM’s accuracy. The former pilot said the military and the public have come to expect extremely high standards from new technology and that Wednesday’s mission was one of the most dangerous there is.

"As a pilot, I can do everything perfectly with a perfect weapon system, and still cannot account for every weapon going exactly where it’s supposed to go," Stufflebeem said. "And that’s just a fact of unfortunate life here in this case."

When a strike is called in, coordinates can be given by radio with a voice message or signals — which might be misunderstood. Or they can be sent from computer on the ground to computer on the plane — which can go wrong if numbers are typed incorrectly.

The weapon is being used by the Air Force and Navy in Afghanistan. It was first used in Kosovo in 1999 when two B-2 stealth bombers dropped 16 of them.

During 1998 and 1999 testing, it was found to be accurate to within 9.6 meters — meaning 50 percent of the bombs would fall within an average of about up to 30 feet from the intended target, the Air Force says. Because the blast area is massive — some 4,000 feet — being off by 40 feet would still be a hit, experts said.

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