YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A U.S. military investigation has found that the August helicopter crash that killed 30 Americans in Afghanistan was the result of a Taliban attack, not poor planning or faulty equipment.
The investigation confirmed initial reports that the CH-47 Chinook was downed by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade, making it the deadliest single attack in the decadelong war.
Seventeen of the Americans on board were Navy SEALs on a mission to capture or kill a senior Taliban leader in the region. Eight Afghans working with U.S. forces — some of whom were military commandos — were also killed when the chopper crashed in Wardak province Aug. 6 while pursuing the target, Qari Tahir.
The investigation puts to rest the prevailing question raised after the crash: Why was such a slow-moving helicopter used to execute a special operations mission?
The use of a Chinook to send in the “Immediate Reaction Force” was consistent with established special operations procedures “and the strike forces selected to execute the mission were appropriate,” chief investigator Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Colt wrote in an executive summary of the investigation, dated Sept. 9.
Despite heavy engagement between U.S. and Taliban forces in the same area where the SEALs were to deploy, intelligence reports failed to detect the group of enemy fighters that shot down the helicopter, according to the report.
“Two or three” rocket propelled grenade attacks were launched from a two-story building about 720 feet away from where the helicopter was hovering over a designated landing zone, according to the report.
Just hours before the crash at about 11 p.m., an Army Ranger-led team had been off-loaded in the same area and was securing the site. Supporting Apache helicopters had killed six enemy fighters by 11:30 p.m. while manned and unmanned aircraft monitored Taliban fighters lingering nearby.
Reports of enemy fighters reorganizing after the initial Ranger assault — along with the possibility that Tahir was part of the group — prompted commanders to deploy the SEAL team to the same area, according to the report.
The first RPG round missed the SEALs’ Chinook, but the second struck one of the helicopter’s blades and exploded, causing the fuselage to separate and fall to the ground and become engulfed in fireball caused by a second explosion upon impact. The summary said all 38 on board likely were killed upon impact.
The Ranger teams moved to the scene, and by 4:12 a.m. had established a security perimeter and began recovery efforts.
Colt wrote that the “shootdown was not the result of a baited ambush, but rather the result of the enemy being at a heightened state of alert due to the 31/2 hours of ongoing coalition air operations concentrated over the northwestern portion of the Tangi Valley.”
But the investigation found that the special operations task force commander did not reallocate intelligence assets to ensure surveillance coverage for the inbound SEALs nor ongoing coverage for the Rangers already on the ground.
“While this finding was not a cause of the shoot-down or crash,” Colt wrote. “It is a noteworthy aspect of the compressed planning process that should be addressed in future (Immediate Reaction Force) missions.”
An anonymous U.S. official told Reuters that no U.S. personnel would be punished for the incident, according to a Wednesday report from the news agency.
“The loss of these selfless and courageous men was a tragedy for which this report can provide little comfort,” Colt wrote in the investigation’s executive summary, which is available on U.S. Central Command’s web site.
It was unclear Thursday if CENTCOM had endorsed the investigation’s findings.