“The compound that was hit was not the one we were targeting,” said Captain Joshua Biggers.
Yesterday in Marja, an embattled Marine Rifle Company called in a HIMARS rocket strike to help clear a stubborn and well entrenched enemy. The resulting kinetic strike hit a compound that was full of civilians, killing 12. Following this tragic engagement, GEN McChrystal ordered the immediate suspension of the use of HIMARS until an investigation of the incident can be completed.
Rewind to January 28th, 2008, a Platoon from my Battalion is struck with a massive IED in southeast Mosul that kills five Soldiers. The remainder of the Platoon is engaging a well-prepared enemy seemingly all around them. A Scout Weapons Team from 4-6 Air Cavalry Squadron (ACS) provides overhead cover and immediately begins gun runs on enemy locations. Munitions carried by the OH-58s are insufficient, so the Platoon on the ground calls for something bigger. The events as told by me here are from my perspective in the Battalion TOC. I was the Task Force Fire Support Officer, so my perspective on the situation is slightly removed and not based on ground truth. Further, the situation I am about to provide does not make me look like a stellar performer, and luckily for me, I was able to learn from this event without directly resulting in any loss of friendly or civilian life. My Fire Support Element, upon learning of the Troops-in-Contact (TIC) situation immediately brought assets to bear overhead, including manned and unmanned surveillance platforms, and a pair of F-16’s. My Fire Supporters in the TOC are simultaneously receiving reports from the Company CP and FSO, the battlespace-owning Company, the Battle Captain and the visual sensors overhead. With that tremendous amount of information, we (those of us in the TOC) were still unable to gain fidelity of what was going on. After determining a GPS-guided 500 pound bomb (GBU-38) was necessary to stop the incessant enemy fire on the Platoon, we began the necessary steps required to drop the bomb. We checked and re-checked the engagement location with the ground elements, running their grids through our targeting systems to ensure we were about to target the correct building (in this case a mosque). After doing this multiple times, attempting to confirm visually through our sensors, we finally received clearance to engage. As the F-16 began its final run-in, we were told by the powers that be to abort the 500 pound bomb drop. Hellfire strikes from the OH-58s coupled with advancing US and Iraqi elements were able to finally gain control of the situation. As the event culminated, I sat and watched in amazement as the elements on the ground cleared a different mosque than the one we had seemingly confirmed a dozen times over. The grid my team in the TOC was provided with over and over again was not the location the ground element was clearing. My Fire Supporters in the TOC took the grid from the ground element and the building description and found a match. What we did not realize is that there were multiple mosques in the area matching the description, and one of them was too new to be on our newest and most up-to-date imagery.
This was my Battalion’s first major engagement and many of the checks, balances and systems we would develop over the next 13 months were a direct result of this situation. I became a staunch advocate of the gridded reference graphic (GRG), along with several other checks that must be met before I was comfortable putting a bomb on target. Luckily, we ended up not dropping that day.
Looking again at Marja, it becomes easier to understand why something went wrong there. I’m not on the ground there, so I have no idea where the flow of information went wrong; from sensor to shooter there are many sets of eyes and many computers involved. What I do know is that I have never personally seen this rocket miss; it goes where someone tells it to go. I’ve also been that young Platoon Leader and Company FSO on the ground trying to put munitions in the right place while being shot at. It’s not easy and it’s not fun. After this investigation is completed, I’m willing to bet that this “errant strike” will be attributed to inaccurate reporting from the Company on the ground, or the first level where the information is plugged into our targeting systems, whether that is Battalion-level or higher. These are the two most-likely stops in the flow where something will go wrong.