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Four May Receive Court-Martial for Copter Mishap

By John F. Harris
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A military review board has recommended that court-martial proceedings be brought against at least four members of the crew of an airborne radar plane that was in charge of the sky over northern Iraq when two U.S. Army helicopters were accidentally shot down by two Air Force jets, according to Pentagon officials.

The legal fate of the crew members of the Airborne Warning and Controls System plane that played a central role in the April 14 friendly fire incident, in which 26 people were killed, now rests with Lt. Gen. Stephen B. Croker, the commander of the Eighth Air Force. The review board that he appointed advised that the lapses committed by the crew were serious enough to warrant seeking punishment under the military justice system; it is up to Croker to decide whether to accept their advice.

A separate review board, under the authority of Maj. Gen. Eugene D. Santarelli, the commander of the 17th Air Force in Germany, will make recommendations about what action should be taken against the two F-15 fighter pilots who fired the missiles that shot down two Army Black Hawks.

It was a misidentification by the two F-15 pilots - they thought they were firing at Iraqi helicopters violating a flight ban - that was the immediate cause of the tragedy. But a nonjudicial inquiry into the accident conducted this spring by military authorities also focused a sharp light on blunders by the AWACS crew.

The crew did not monitor the course of the Army helicopters as they visited Kurdish settlements in northern Iraq, and did not alert the F-15 pilots before they fired that the helicopters they were viewing were friendly, Air Force Maj. Gen. James G. Andrus told reporters last month.

At the time Andrus issued his findings, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said, "Had AWACS been operating properly there would not have been the remotest chance of this (accident) happening."

The review board appointed by Croker apparently agreed. They recommended courts-martial against four crew members, and have not yet decided what to do in a fifth case, according to a Pentagon source.

If Croker agrees, he will initiate an "Article 32" investigation against the crew members, which is the equivalent of a grand jury in the civilian judicial system. Croker could not be reached for comment Monday night.

The Air Force has refused to release the names of the military personnel most directly involved in the incident, claiming that it could jeopardize their legal rights if formal charges are brought.

Pentagon officials had not planned to announce the results for about a week, and sources Monday night said they were angry that news had broken prematurely, fearing that might damage the legal case. The review board's action was first reported by CBS News.

The review board included operations experts, AWACS personnel not involved in the incident and lawyers, according to a Pentagon source.

In his briefing last month, Andrus noted that the commander of the AWACS crew was not currently qualified for his mission. "He had flown only one sortie in the previous three months and did not meet command standards for mission-ready status," Andrus said.

It could not be learned Monday night whether the commander was among the four for whom the review board recommended legal proceedings.

The AWACS plane is a modified Boeing 707 jet and is distinctive for the circular radar disk, 30 feet in diameter and six feet deep, attached to the fuselage. On board there are more than a dozen screens, from which controllers monitor air traffic and provide directions to operating aircraft.

Both the F-15s and the AWACS were there to help enforce an allied ban on flight in northern Iraq that had been in place since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The zone was established as a safe haven for Iraq's persecuted Kurdish minority.

The Black Hawk helicopters were carrying 15 U.S. citizens and 11 foreigners, including British, French and Turkish military officers as well as Kurdish civilians. The group included the leaders of an allied military council that served as a liaison to the Kurds.

Last week Perry, citing the unique circumstances of the helicopter downings, agreed to pay $100,000 damages to the families of the 11 foreigners on board.