KABUL, Afghanistan — A U.S. warplane mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb on British troops after they called for air support in Afghanistan, killing three soldiers and seriously wounding two others in an accident that could re-ignite debate about America’s heavy use of air power. Friendly fire involving U.S. troops has led to the deaths of three British servicemen in the current Iraq war, but the incident Thursday night was the first confirmed case between the two forces in Afghanistan. British officials said they were investigating the error, which comes amid growing concerns about civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes.
The troops were patrolling northwest of Kajaki, a militant hot spot in southern Helmand province, when they were attacked by Taliban fighters, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
“During the intense engagement that ensued, close air support was called in from two U.S. F15 aircraft to repel the enemy. One bomb was dropped and it is believed the explosion killed the three soldiers,” it said.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said initial reports were that the airstrike was called in by a British forward air controller. The forward controller is usually the person on the ground, who has the target area in sight and directs an aircraft to attack, giving target coordinates and ensuring that friendly forces are not in the way.
The incident has to be carefully investigated to try to learn where the problem arose, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. That is, officials have to try to determine whether human error, either by the troops calling in the coordinates for the airstrike or by pilots dropping the bomb, was behind the accident. They will also need to examine whether equipment failure, either in the ground or in the air, was a factor.
“There are a handful of different reasons why this tragic incident has happened and we are not in a position at the moment and I don’t think we will be for some time to find out exactly what has happened,” said a spokesman for British troops in Helmand, Lt. Col. Charlie Mayo.