An AC-130U Gunship flies a local training mission Jan. 27, 2011, over Hurlburt Field, Fla.

An AC-130U Gunship flies a local training mission Jan. 27, 2011, over Hurlburt Field, Fla. U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock

How a Poorly Rigged Antenna Contributed to Kunduz Hospital Strike

AFSOC commander describes new drones, training, and gear could prevent future deadly mistakes.

A Ku-band antenna that had been “scabbed” onto an AC-130U gunship failed to transmit video on the morning of Oct. 3 during a mission in Kunduz, Afghanistan, contributing to a tragedy in which more than 30 people died, Air Force Special Operations Command Gen. Bradley Heithold said on Thusday.  

Malfunctioning gear had already been fingered by Gen. John Campbell, who issued a Nov. 25 statement on the airstrike that destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital.   “During the flight, the electronic systems onboard the aircraft malfunctioned, preventing the operation of an essential command and control capability and eliminating the ability of the aircraft to transmit video, send/receive email, or send/receive electronic messages,” the report reads, in part. “Confusion was exacerbated by the lack of video and electronic communications between the headquarters and the aircraft, caused by the earlier malfunction,” it continues.

On Thursday at an Association of Old Crows gathering in Washington, D.C., for the first time, Heithold went into more detail on what exactly went wrong on the AC-130.

“Today, we pump full-motion video into the airplane and out of the airplane. So we have a Ku-band antenna on the airplane … the U-model. It’s sort of scabbed on. In fact, we had some problems with it recently on a mission in Afghanistan where it didn’t work. I wish it had been working,” Heithold said. “On our current legacy airplanes, the solution we used was rather scabbed on: take the overhead escape hatch out, put an antenna on, stick it back up there, move the beams around. We’ve had some issues, but we’re working with our industry partners to resolve that issue.”

He added, “99.9 percent of the time we’ve had success with it. These things aren’t perfect; they’re machines.”

Heithold said that dedicated Ku-band data transfer is now standard on later models of the AC-130, which should make data transfer much more reliable. “If you’re looking at an AC-130J, for instance, you’ll see a bump in the area just above the co-pilot. That is a built-in Ku-band capability to move information into and out of the airplane, primarily full-motion video … The AC-130W? It’s built in. The AC-130J? It’s built in. It’s going to be much more reliable than the case of our legacy airplanes,” in Kunduz, he said.

The technological problems Campbell describes in his report stand in stark contrast to the way information and data processing are supposed to work on an AC-130. Ideally, in a situation like the one that played out on Kunduz, its crew can  see and transmit full-motion video data from the plane’s battle management center, or BMC. When the BMC is working properly, the Joint Operations Center, or JOC, is able to see what the gunship is targeting via the video-feed. Combat air controllers or soldiers on the ground can also see what’s happening via small, handheld tablet computer called a Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver or ROVER.

Some AC-130 also carry a targeting laser, sometimes referred to as a “Big Ass Green Laser” but which Heitghthold called simply the “green beam.” It allows ground crew to co-oborate targeting decisions.

“We mounted it on a gunship and from a couple miles away you could flash a green spot,” James “Hondo” Guerts, an Air Force acquisition executive, said last year. “Then we told the Afghans, if you’re shooting and you’re seeing a big green blinking light on you, that’s probably not good for you.”

The green beam “can point at the target and [allow operators to] say, ‘Yup, you’re looking at the right thing,” said Heithold. But it only works when ground troops have “eyes on the target” — which the  Campbell report makes clear was not the case. And said Heithold, a lack of eyes is no longer an exceptional situation. It’s becoming the norm.

“The fights that we’re in today, the JTAC is frankly not on the objective. They’re in the rear making the call based on what we’re showing them,” he said.

Drones To Fill in Intelligence Gaps

Effort to extend the aircrew’s awareness go beyond the aircraft itself, Heithold said. Under an initiative dubbed, Tactical Off-Board Sensing, the AC-130 might launch  small foldable drones—Heithold mentioned Raytheon’s Coyotes — to provide full motion video.

“It comes out of that tube. It goes in a pre-planned orbit. I can stand off somewhere. It can tell me what’s there. It gives me a site picture before I ever get there. Now I can strike from a distance,” he said.

The Air Force has tested the system and will soon try it out in combat, said Heithold. The tragedy in Kunduz created a special urgency for the new capability.

“In a case like that, had you had another set of eyeballs—it’s another sensor on the airplane. We’ve got two very-high-definition sensors on the AC-130. Imagine now if I can duplicate that by taking something off the airplane, getting it down [closer to the target.] It’s quiet. It’s got a pretty darn high-definition sensor … I get a heck of a lot more fidelity on the target back to the airplane ... giving the airplane visibility on the target up close. More visibility and clarity I have on the target, the more effective I’m going to be,” he said.

The military is considering additional disciplinary action for the crew in the Kunduz case. Campbell’s report makes clear that human error was a major contributing factor. Without naming the crew, Heithold added a note of agreement, saying that technology would never suffice in the place of good judgement or patient targeting.

“Sometimes it’s old-style Vietnam,” he said. “Make contact with the guy on the radio and talk on the target. And we have to train our crews that when technology fails us, we’re still able to prosecute the mission by talking the way we used to, ‘what are you looking at?’ Well, I’m looking at this.’ So technology is going to help us in many, many ways but we also want our crews to know, it won’t always work ... That stuff fails, you’ve got to be able to go back to the dead reckoning. Same situation here. If it fails, you’re not going to have the level of fidelity on the target, etc. as you had had it been working. It’s common sense.”