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Investigation Finds U.S. Missiles Downed Navy Jet

Central Command Says 'Friendly Fire' Killed Pilot of Plane Mistaken for Iraqi Weapon in April 2003

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page A20

A military investigation has concluded that a "friendly fire" incident in which a Navy pilot was shot down and killed by U.S. forces during the spring 2003 invasion of Iraq occurred because operators at two Patriot missile batteries and a command center all mistakenly took his F/A-18 Hornet for an incoming Iraqi missile, the U.S. Central Command said last night.

The April 2003 incident was one of two during the campaign in which Patriot anti-missile batteries mistakenly hit allied aircraft. In the other, in late March 2003, a Patriot destroyed a British Tornado GR4 fighter-bomber near the border of Iraq and Kuwait, killing two crew members.

The core conclusion of the Central Command report, that the Navy jet was downed by Patriot missiles, confirms what was widely believed almost immediately after the incident occurred.

According to the summary released by the Central Command, on April 2, 2003, two Navy F/A-18s were near Karbala in central Iraq and heading back to their ship, the USS Kitty Hawk. A Patriot missile battery mistakenly identified the plane as an Iraqi missile and notified the headquarters for air defense, the Information Coordination Center. The center mistakenly designated the flight path of the Navy jet as a missile track, the report said.

Seconds later, a second battery located closer to the front line of fighting also detected the plane and also mistakenly determined it was a missile. The second battery decided that it and the military unit it was defending were the missile's target.

The effect of the corroborating reports made operators at the two batteries and at the command center "increasingly confident that they were all detecting the same hostile missile, that their detection was accurate, and that this missile was a direct threat to U.S. forces," said the summary of the report released last night. The command center then ordered that two missiles be launched, it said. The summary does not explain why operators were fooled or how they mistook the radar profile of a plane for that of a faster missile.

There are no plans to punish the personnel involved, said Marine Capt. Kelly Frushour, a spokeswoman for the Central Command. "It was determined . . . that no disciplinary action was warranted," she said.

The report was released on Friday evening because the family of the Navy pilot, Lt. Nathan White, first had to be notified of its findings, she said. It took more than 20 months to release the report because Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the chief of the Central Command, asked that its findings be reviewed, she said. But she said she did not know what the outcome of that review was.

Dennis White, father of the downed pilot, said he did not want punitive action taken. "It's a heartbreak for us, but I personally do not hold these young men responsible," he said. An Air Force veteran, he added, "I was a combat pilot during the Vietnam War, and I know what the pressures of combat can do."

Nathan White grew up in Abilene, Tex., graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah, and spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Japan, where he was later based with the Navy.

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