On November 25, General John F. Campbell, the commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, announced the findings of an initial investigation into the air strike by an Air Force AC-130 gunship that hit a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 3. The strike—in which the AC-130 attacked using its onboard cannon, killing 30 patients and members of the MSF hospital staff and injuring another 34—lasted nearly a half-hour.

Campbell called the strike “a tragic, but avoidable accident caused primarily by human error.” But among the secondary factors cited in the report, he noted, there were several contributing technical failures, including a networking failure that could have provided information that would have prevented the mistaken targeting of the hospital. Furthermore, information systems available to the command responsible for the aircraft failed to alert those on duty in the operations center that the target selected by the aircraft was on a no-strike list.

Spooky action at a distance

The sensor suite of an AC-130U “Spooky” operating at night. Infrared cameras are a primary part of the targeting system.

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The aircraft responsible for the errant attack on the hospital was an AC-130U “Spooky” gunship, a 20-year-old aircraft that carries a five-barreled 25 millimeter Gatling gun, a 40mm Bofors cannon, and a 105mm howitzer. The airplane is a veritable flying artillery battery that “orbits” its targets while firing upon them with high-explosive rounds. (The Air Force has also deployed the AC-130W “Stinger,” a modified version of the special operations transport the MC-130W “Dragon Spear,” to Afghanistan. These aircraft carry a 30mm automatic cannon and launch tubes for Griffin and Hellfire missiles and laser-guided glide bombs.)

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