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January 17, 2003
Notes from the Pentagon

'Friendly punishment'
The Air Force already has punished one officer in the "friendly fire" deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

The punishment was not for either of the two pilots, Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach, who faced manslaughter charges this week in a courtroom at Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

The Air Force reprimanded the two men's commanding officer, Col. David C. Nichols. We obtained the July 22 letter of reprimand, which accused the fighter pilot of being "seriously derelict" in four areas.

Col. Nichols vehemently denied the charges in a three-page response memo to Maj. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, the top Air Force officer in the Persian Gulf region.

Said the reprimand, "Your failures of leadership were so significant that several of them were cited as substantial contributing factors to the tragedy."

The four failings charged: Col. Nichols did not pass on his concern about command and control problems to superiors; inadequate mission planning for his units; seeing himself as "one of the boys" rather than as commander; and "arrogantly altered the wording of rights" when he interviewed the two pilots after the April incident.

"You are hereby reprimanded," the letter states. "Your conduct falls woefully short of that expected of a commander."

Col. Nichols commanded the 332nd Air Expeditionary Group based at al Jaber air base in Kuwait. He opposed the Air Force's decision to charge the two with manslaughter. If the Air Force orders a court-martial, convictions could bring 60 years in prison.

Col. Nichols supports the pilots' argument that they fired in self-defense when they spotted ground fire that appeared aimed at their F-16 fighters. He says no one up the chain of command notified his unit or aircraft controllers that the Canadian exercise was planned that night.

The Air Force says the two violated rules of engagement and should have taken steps to positively identify the source of the gun flashes.

Col. Nichols held back few punches in rebutting the reprimand.

"The [letter of reprimand] is unwarranted and obviously based on an extremely shallow understanding of the situation and the facts as they pertain to the incident," he wrote. "My command and leadership in no way contributed to the accident. It was evident from the arrival of the [investigative] board that they were looking for someone to blame for this terrible accident. The group under my command had an incredible combat record, supported two simultaneous contingencies and accomplished more in one year than most wings accomplish in five years."

He said there was a lack of communication between Central Command and the air command center. "This was evident with the complete failure of coordination for Operation Anaconda," Col. Nichols said, referring to the Afghanistan war's biggest battle.

On the charge that he did not pass along concerns about air control problems, the colonel said he and his staff contacted Central Command "over 100 times with concerns over the lack of friendly ground order of battle information and airspace control measures necessary to support a ground war." He added, "I have multiple emails that detail these conversations."

Col. Nichols then told of one alarming incident to drive home his point. A B-52 bomber dropped a satellite-guided bomb directly over a formation of his F-16s.

Deployment snags
The deployment of U.S. military forces to the Middle East is behind schedule, according to defense sources.

Problems are cropping up with U.S. Army units that are preparing to ship out. Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force units are said to be closer to the schedule but still late in moving troops and equipment to the region.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of the deployments, hopes to have between six and eight divisions of troops within striking distance of Iraq for the operation, which planners believe will last a minimum of 60 days.

The deployment delays could mean U.S. forces will not be ready for action until early March.

Terrorist casing
U.S. intelligence agencies continue to receive regular reports that terrorists are conducting surveillance of facilities in the United States, defense officials said.

Suspected terrorists or those believed to be part of their operational planning have been sighted near U.S. military bases in the United States and at nuclear power facilities and other infrastructure. The reports indicated that the suspected terrorists were eyeing facilities as potential targets of attack.

Such casing is one of the few signs indicating to security officials that terrorists are targeting facilities. The FBI in the past has sought to play down such reports as inconclusive or nonspecific.

Fleet enlargement
The Navy's proposed 2004 budget will ask Congress to fund construction of seven ships, up from five in this year's plan.

Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, was criticized in some circles last year for sacrificing shipbuilding in order to divert money to shore up combat readiness. The Navy believes the strategy worked, and is now ready to ramp up ship production.

The 2004 plan, which begins Oct. 1, would buy one Virginia-class attack submarine, three DDG-51 destroyers, one LPD-17 amphibious ship and two T-AKE replenishment ships.

The Navy is fighting to keep the fleet above 300 ships, after flirting with a 600-ship Navy in the anti-Soviet buildup of the 1980s. The service cuts corners by sending out smaller carrier battle groups for six-month deployments. It used to routinely send 12 surface ships and submarines, but now deploys as few as eight.

The Navy also plans to buy more aircraft, 100 in 2004 compared with 95 this year.

Shoot straight
Sign posted at the U.S. Central Command's operations center located at a sprawling logistics base at As Sayliyah, Qatar: "Speed is fine but accuracy is final. — Wyatt Earp, 1888"

Humor corps
Gen. James L. Jones likes to sprinkle his speeches with humorous anecdotes. This week's drum-and-bugle change of command ceremony at the U.S. Naval Academy was no exception.

Gen. Jones relinquished his position as Marine Corps commandant, and will soon become supreme allied commander, Europe. He thus passes from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who supply troops and equipment, to a combatant command, which uses them.

Gen. Jones, in his farewell address, sent a message to his new combatant command colleagues. "I unite with you against the service chiefs who deny us everything we need," he said to laughter from the crowd, which included Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The general added this story: As a young officer, a superior told him the No. 1 job of the Corps was to produce new Marines. He said he went home and told his wife they had to start producing more children. "It didn't work," joked Gen. Jones. The general and his wife, Diane, have four children — Jim, Jennifer, Kevin and Gregg.

Gen. Michael W. Hagee, the new commandant, also brought a few chuckles when, microphone in hand like a talk-show host, he listed all the tasks the Marines are ready to perform on short notice. He summed up the responsibility succinctly: "We do windows," he said. •Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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