on November 6, 2019, a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet mistakenly dropped a bomb on private property miles from a bombing range in Japan.
The Air Force released the accident report earlier this week, the report explains that pilot error caused the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb to strike the wrong target miles away from the actual target.
An F-16CM fighter from the 14th Fighter Squadron was flying a training mission at the Draughon Bombing Range, located approximately 15 miles away from the fighter’s home base at Misawa Air Base.
The pilot accidentally sent the GBU-12 flying to a target location he believed another F-16 was spotting for him. Instead, the bomb was sent to another location, 3.4 miles away and off the bombing range—on private property. No one was killed or injured during the incident, and there was no damage to the property.
The GBU-12 Paveway II is a 500-pound bomb fitted with a laser seeker and control fins to guide the bomb to target. The releasing aircraft, other aircraft, drone, or unit on the ground will “paint” the target with a laser beam. Once the bomb is dropped, the seeker homes in on the laser energy reflected off the target.
Laser guided bombs like the Paveway II are considered “smart bombs” but are only as smart as the targeting data. In this case, the report explains, the pilot was flying a nighttime suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) mission and was cleared to drop an inert (non-explosive) GBU-12.
Due to scattered clouds at the 6,000 to the 8,000-foot level, the pilot was unable to see the target himself. The pilot asked another aircraft in his three-ship formation to transmit target coordinates, and another plane did so. Unfortunately, the pilot apparently became confused and dropped the bomb on a different set of coordinates.
The report blames “channelized attention, changing weather, and targeting technical error” for errant drop. The pilot believed that if one of the other aircraft in his flight could see the target it was safe to drop the bomb. Unfortunately, unknown to all those involved, the pilot acted on incorrect targeting data.
According to the Air Force, the aircraft and pilot were both immediately grounded after the incident. The pilot was disqualified, retrained in weapons handling, and was ordered to brief all the other pilots at Misawa “on the sequence of events leading up to the mishap to prevent a similar incident.”
Incidents like these happen periodically but are particularly disruptive at overseas bases where local governments are sensitive to the presence of foreign troops on their soil.
The Japanese government later issued a “severe protest” over the Air Force’s handling of the incident and was particularly incensed it was not informed until the next day. In a March 2018 incident, another F-16 based at Misawa dropped two external fuel tanks in a lake after its engine caught fire.