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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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