Tag Archives: Rules of Engagement

Horrific Tragedy Ensues After AC-130 Gunship Crew Denied Opportunity to Engage Afghan ‘Squirters’ in Tangi Valley

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article below first appeared on this site Sept. 20, 2013. Several months later, it vanished — along with nearly 5,000 others written and published since October 2006 — as detailed in a post eight months ago. Today, I rescued it from where it appears on an alternate site in order to share it in advance of the fourth anniversary of a tragic event that took place Aug. 6, 2011. It appears below with only minor modifications. Please read and share.

The images above are those of the men lost while serving their country in Afghanistan aboard a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter — call sign “Extortion 17.”

The images above are those of the men lost while serving their country in Afghanistan aboard a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter — call sign “Extortion 17.”

BACKGROUND

Recently, I asked the question, Did Afghan Officials Play Deadly Role in Navy SEALs Helo Crash? Today, I ask a question about a decision made by U.S. military officials in OPERATION LEFTY GROVE, an effort during which the single-largest loss of life in the history of U.S. Naval Special Warfare took place: Why Was AC-130 Crew Not Allowed to Engage Squirters?

On Aug. 6, 2011, a CH-47 “Chinook” — call sign “Extortion 17” — was shot down during the pre-dawn hours while on a mission to capture a bad guy in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province.  Among the dead, 30 Americans, most of whom were members of the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL TEAM SIX.

Not coincidentally, many believe, the deaths of these “quiet professionals” came only weeks after Vice President Joe Biden compromised operational security by disclosing details about their unit’s involvement in a raid on Osama bin Laden‘s compound in Pakistan.

After obtaining a redacted copy of the U.S. Central Command crash investigation report — almost 1,300 pages — that had previously been classified “SECRET,” I was able to learn more than most about what reportedly transpired on the mission during which the good guys were hunting for a Taliban leader in the Tangi Valley who had been given the code name, “Lefty Grove.”

THE MISSION

A sensor operator aboard an AC-130U performs preflight system checks before takeoff at Hurlburt Field, Fla. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ali E. Flisek.

A sensor operator aboard an AC-130U performs preflight system checks before takeoff at Hurlburt Field, Fla. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ali E. Flisek.

During the evening of Aug. 5, 2011, the crew of a U.S. Air Force AC-130 aircraft — it’s not clear which version, “H’ or “U” — left Bagram Air Base was involved in what the aircraft commander told investigators was a “direct action mission.”  Shortly after arriving “on station (i.e., in the location of their mission objective),” members on the heavily-armed aircraft’s crew became aware of eight individuals “huddling up along the wall” of a building near their objective and positively identified them as possessing weapons.

“After hearing that [redacted] was going to engage those guys,” the AC-130 navigator explained to crash investigators, “we immediately asked the [redacted] if we could go overhead.  That way we could be watching from a point where we would be ready to shoot if there were any additional squirters that moved off the engagement site from [redacted].”  FYI:  “Squirter” is a term the AC-130 aircraft commander later defined as an individual who has left the target compound but has not been declared hostile or shown hostile intent.

Further into the discussion, the AC-130 navigator explained what happened after the crew of another aircraft engaged the eight individuals on the ground.

“Then, at that point, [redacted] One engaged the eight pax north of the building, 120 meters west of the actual of the Lefty Grove target set, and we picked up two squirters that did not get hit or (were) less injured than the rest of their other folks… and we basically started following those guys off to the northwest.”

Then the AC-130 aircraft commander interjected with an important note.

“Really quick, an important point I think at this juncture is, we had requested to engage those two individuals, and we were denied,” he said.

Another individual, identified only as “IE” in the report, offered more details, explaining that the original engagement planned for those eight individuals on the ground was a “hell fire engagement,” but “they elected to go to the 30-millimeter due to CDE constraints.”  FYI:  CDE is short for “Collateral Damage Estimate.”

What happened when they pushed for 40mm engagement as a weapon that would result in zero CDE?

“We were denied that,” he explained.  “We were just requested to maintain track on those two squirters that were moving west.”

After some discussion of how typical mission communications play out, members of the AC-130 crew were asked by crash investigators to “kind of walk through what happened next.”

“Basically, like we said, we were passing periodic updates to [redacted],” the AC-130 navigator explained.  “The first one we passed was when the squirters were 200 meters away and, really, it was about every 200 to 300 meters we were passing along updates.

“[Redacted] I guess you talk to [redacted],” he continued.  “They said they didn’t want us to engage; what he passed to us was that they wanted to follow those guys and figure out where they stopped.  And then find out exactly where they were and then basically use that as a follow-on after they were done clearing and securing the actual Lefty Grove site.

“So, basically, we kept following them until they were about two clicks away and then they finally stopped under a piece of terrain, a small tree grove,” the AC-130 navigator explained before being asked by the deputy investigating officer to point out the grove on a graphic.

At that point, the AC-130 aircraft commander began describing how and where his crew followed the squirters to a point where they picked up six additional personnel and how his crew passed along their observations.  He also went on to explain that additional squirters had been identified in the objective area.

Eventually, the AC-130 navigator explains how the crew of Extortion — which, crew members noted later, became known to them as “Extortion 17″ only after they started seeing emails days later — enters the scenario.

“So we watched the squirters go into the building,” he explained.  “At this time [redacted] had moved out to escort Extortion into the HLZ [redacted] — after we got all information passed to us about where the HLZ actually was going to be and their route of flight.”  FYI:  “HLZ” is short for “Helicopter Landing Zone” or, depending on the circumstances, “Hot Landing Zone.”

The building inside which the squirters had taken refuge, according to the AC-130 navigator, was about 600 meters southeast of the HLZ where the crew of Extortion 17 planned to drop off members of SEAL TEAM SIX.

After some discussion of the communications that took place between air and ground elements, the AC-130 aircraft commander confirmed for the deputy investigating officer how responsibilities for watching the squirters and visually escorting Extortion 17 into the HLZ had been assigned.

Additional discussion about details of the mission followed, and the AC-130 commander described his final communications with the crew of Extortion 17 while also noting that it was a “zero illum” night.  Total darkness.

“They called three minutes out, so we are trying to figure out, we’ve got the HLZ, we are getting ready to put the burn on and we are just sitting there waiting,” the AC-130 aircraft commander explained.  “A normal one minute, we are waiting two minutes for that one minute out call to put the burn on and just waiting, and we don’t know exactly what is going on.”

He went on to explain that his crew thought about making contact with Extortion 17 but decided against.  Why?  Because, in case they were trying to work something out, he didn’t want to bother them during “this critical phase of flight.”

After noting how the crew of Extortion 17 changed their run-in heading (a.k.a., “direction of approach”), the AC-130 aircraft commander said the one-minute-out call came and his crew began to “put the burn on” — or unleashed fire to protect the helicopter as it was about to land in the HLZ.

“Shortly after the burn came on,” he explained, “I saw three RPG shots, kind of just ripple — one, two, three — coming from the south to the north.  I was in the southern part of the orbit and…what I saw was either the first or second one make an initial hit, and just a massive explosion, and it just seemed to be stationary, and it just dropped.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITY?

After reading the 55-page document containing the transcript of the crash investigation team’s conversation with an AC-130 gunship crew involved in OPERATION LEFTY GROVE, I’m convinced that orders based on Rules of Engagement (i.e., political correctness-based fear that an attack against suspected enemy combatants would result in “collateral damage”) prevented that crew from doing their job and likely resulted in the senseless deaths of 30 American warriors in Afghanistan.  And I’m not alone.

The video below features the audio track of a talk radio appearance during which Charlie Strange shared his feelings — about losing his son, Navy SEAL Michael Strange, in the crash and about the findings of the crash investigation report — with Dr. Michael Savage, host of “The Michael Savage Show.”

To read other articles about Extortion 17, click here.

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THROWBACK THURSDAY: Former Army Green Beret Offers His Take on Deadly Navy SEALs Mission — Extortion 17

Thirty Americans died in Afghanistan Aug. 6, 2011, according to a DoD news release issued five days later.  All had been aboard a U.S. military helicopter, call sign “Extortion 17.”   Among those on board were 25 Special Operations Forces personnel, including 17 U.S. Navy SEALs.  Though it became the most-deadly incident in the history of Naval Special Warfare, it has received scant public attention.

Click on image to read DoD News Release Aug. 11, 2011.

Click on image to read DoD News Release Aug. 11, 2011.

As a former Air Force public affairs officer, I have virtually no first-hand familiarity with SOF, though I have had many opportunities to speak with SOF members and even wrote a book, Three Days In August, about one of them.

Today, I count as friends many veterans boasting decades of SOF experience under their belts.  In an email message yesterday, one of those friends, a former Army Green Beret, shared his expert observations and raised some serious questions about the extremely-controversial of the Extortion 17 mission.  The text of his sometimes-graphic message appears below:

What makes Special Operations Forces (SOF) great is the attention to detail — every detail.

All SOF missions require isolation prior to missions.  In my community, we isolated all parties involved until wheels up.  Our host-nation military guys never knew where we were going or who was going until we got off the aircraft, vehicle, boat, etc.  No need to tell them, because you train for many different types of missions (i.e., raid, ambush, hostage rescue, etc.).  The person or place doesn’t matter.

On a typical mission, the team conducts mission planning down to infiltration and exfiltration.   We, the team, decide how it will be done.  We, the team, submit our plan to our group commander who, depending on risk assessment and who it is we are going after, contacts the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF).   Every theater has one.  The CJSOTF person makes direct contact with the Secretary of Defense.  Once the “green light” is given for the plan, it is the responsibility of CJSOTF to arrange the assets needed to conduct the mission.   Once the team is notified of the green light, “dry runs” are conducted — if, that is, it isn’t a time-sensitive mission.  The dry runs involve everyone on the team.

Half the team conducts infiltration, actions on the objective and exfiltration with host-nation personnel.  At no time are the host-nation personnel told the mission’s five W’s — who, what, where, when and why.   Meanwhile, the other half of the team gets current intelligence reports and works to coordinate needed assets (i.e., air, MEDEVAC, artillery, fast movers, etc.).

Generally, two to three team members go to the aviation unit and conduct an “air brief” with the commander of the aviation unit as well as their intelligence, weather and flight operations personnel.  There, they are briefed on the five W’s and instructed by team members about where and how they will fly, where they will land, the location of pick-up points and about contingencies.  They are given Rules of Engagement for the escort gun ships on “gun runs,” and the communication frequency for all is shared at this time.

Once the air brief is completed, those personnel link back up with the whole team for a mission brief.  After final checks are done, movement to the flight line takes place.  Weapons are placed in “red” status (i.e., has a round in the chamber and the safety is on), communication is checked,  accountability is checked, and away you go.

Now, there is a large distinction between a Green Beret mission and a Navy SEALs mission. Green Berets primarily train and conduct various missions with host-nation soldiers.  SEALs and Delta primarily do not.  Delta uses Ranger Regiment, and SEALs use more of their own — or Green Beret or some host-nation personnel.  In all of my time with SOF, I never saw a SEAL team conduct a mission with host-nation personnel UNLESS the SEALs were assigned to us.

I have worked with, through, and by SEALs, and I’m sure every SEAL has done the same with Green Berets.  My point:  The SEALs were directed by someone to take these host-nation troops with them.  Now, that same person allowed those personnel to change out.  This violates the Mission Decision-Making Process, the Bible for all military operations.

Now I know the family is upset about the age of the aircraft and the fact it was a “D” model versus an “H” model.   The ONLY unit with the MH-47H is the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), a group known as the Night Stalkers.  While every SOF unit (i.e., Green Beret, SEAL, Delta) team requests them for their missions, there are not enough of those aircraft to meet all of the requests.

When the team says they are doing a air infiltration, they request the air assets required. Prior to the air brief, they will know what platforms are available.  For instance, they will be told, “You asked for 10 helicopters and you only get 3,” or “You asked for fast movers at 0330 hrs, but they can’t get on station until 0415 hrs,” and so on.  By the end of the briefing, team members know who is available to cover their asses all the way down to the drone in the sky.

The MH-47H is a SOF-only aircraft built specifically for night operations.  It emits a small radar signature and carries formidable countermeasures, including — but not limited to — two mini-guns and one .50-caliber machine gun.  All crew members, including the flight crew, are assigned and trained by SOF.

Conversely, crew members aboard the CH-47D come from the ranks of the conventional forces and are not trained in the MH-47H capabilities.  The CH-47D is equipped with basic countermeasures, including two 5.56mm M249 SAW machine guns.  That’s it!

To be in the 160th, everyone — pilots included — must pass the same rigorous selection process as everyone else in SOF.  Pilots, who go through Survival, Escape, Resistance, Evasion (SERE) School, must have been a regular aviation  brigade member for at least four years before applying.  In most cases, and depending upon the risk assessment, non-SOF aircraft would not be allowed to go on missions involving high-value targets in hostile areas.  Long and short, the CJSOTF air commander would be the one coordinating this, responsible to locate and coordinate all air assets to include Quick-Reaction Force (QRF) air frames as well as fast movers, drones, etc.

U.S. Navy SEALs offload an all-terrain vehicle from an MH-47 Chinook helicopter following a village-clearing operation in Shah Wali Kot district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, June 21, 2011. Operations such as these are conducted in order to promote the Government of Afghanistan, while denying Taliban influence throughout the province. The SEALs are with Special Operations Task Force ? South. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel P. Shook/Released)

U.S. Navy SEALs offload an all-terrain vehicle from an MH-47 Chinook helicopter following a village-clearing operation in Shah Wali Kot district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, June 21, 2011. Operations such as these are conducted in order to promote the Government of Afghanistan, while denying Taliban influence throughout the province. The SEALs are with Special Operations Task Force ? South. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Daniel P. Shook/Released)

By now, you’re asking, “What does all of this mean?”  The items below explain things in a nutshell while raising important questions:

1) No aircraft goes out without escorts or layers of escorts.

2) The team commander had to be ordered to take host-nation personnel with him and to change out those personnel.  Who gave that order?

3) Someone in the aviation unit would also have to approve the manifest change and would have the name of the person who authorized the change on the manifest.  Who changed the manifest?

4) When, until now, was there ever a funeral with U.S. and host-nation personnel together.  In all of my time in combat, I never saw it happen.  Why did it happen in this case?

5) How many personnel since this war started has the government cremated?  Again, I personally worked a crash with four U.S. personnel and one host-nation soldier that burned.  I personally pulled three torsos out of the wreckage — there were no legs, arms or skull above the jaws — and I placed them into three separate body bags.  I waited for the the forensic doctor who would perform the autopsy to arrive and, for four hours, we sifted through the wreckage for the remaining body parts and personnel effects.  We had a sixth bag that we put the pieces in for DNA testing.  I went to the funeral for the four U.S. personnel.  The host nation held a funeral at a mosque on the installation.  I tell you this to let you know great care is given to the dead, no matter how the person dies or how gruesome it is.  Every Soldier, Sailor, Marine and Airman deserves to rest on American soil, and deserves to come home.

6)  What assets were deployed to recover the personnel and what was the time line for those efforts?

7)  The operations order would have listed a QRF assigned to the mission.  Who were they and from what base/location did they come?

These are but a few of the questions that remain about Extortion 17.

During a May 9 news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., several family members of the fallen warriors raised similar questions and were joined by a number of high-ranking, now-retired SOF members who did the same.  The news conference is captured in its entirety in the 3-hour video below.   Worth every minute of time you spend watching it, I hope you will watch it, share it and demand your elected officials in Washington obtain answers from the Pentagon and the Obama Administration to the questions raised about Extortion 17.

Our men and women in uniform deserve nothing less.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The story above was published for the first time June 4, 2013. I share it again today, because Americans need to remember it and not be satisfied until they get answers.

SEE ALSO: Did Afghan Officials Play Role in ‘Extortion 17′ Deaths?

For links to other articles of interest as well as photos and commentary, join me on Facebook and Twitter.  Please show your support by buying my books and encouraging your friends and loved ones to do the same.  To learn how to order signed copies, click here. Thanks in advance!

Click on image above to order Bob's books.

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