Seeking Answers in Kuwait Tragedy

A Pentagon official today suggested that miscommunication might have been the cause of Monday's accidental aircraft bombing, killing six men, at a training area in Kuwait.

A U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet jet fighter

mistakenly dropped a bomb on friendly forces during a nighttime military training exercise in Kuwait on Monday, killing five Americans and one New Zealander.

All nine victims in last month's submarine tragedy were Japanese, triggering widespread outage in that nation. Monday's incident further increased tensions with Pacific Rim allies.

"We're very, very shocked by what has happened and obviously the New Zealand government is seeking explanations very fast for how it can be that unarmed observers are killed by a bomb dropped like this," said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Sources told ABCNEWS that four of the dead were from the U.S. Army and one from the Air Force, but officials said names would not be released until next of kin have been notified.

Five U.S. military personnel were injured and taken to a military hospital. Two were treated and released while three remain hospitalized and are expected to survive, said the U.S. Central Command, the area of the Pentagon responsible for Kuwait.

What Went Wrong?

The Pentagon has appointed an accident investigation board and is questioning the pilot and survivors.

As a potentially embarrassing naval court of inquiry in Hawaii hears testimony that the crew of the submarine rushed through key safety procedures, the Pentagon must answer questions about how a routine training mission could have turned deadly.

The Pentagon is looking into several scenarios. Either in the darkness the pilot somehow misidentified the target, or was misguided. Or he may have aimed at the right target, but the bombs themselves somehow went astray.

Vehicles May Have Been Mistaken for Targets

As part of a routine training exercise, the Hornet, along with several other U.S. aircraft, was supposed to fly from the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman to the al Udari bombing range, find its target, and drop at least one 500-pound bomb on it.

Sources say a group of Army, Air Force and other troops were in the area, just south of Kuwait's northern border with Iraq, as part of an air support training exercise.

Such exercises are held quarterly to practice air attacks against hostile ground targets in close proximity to friendly forces. The exercises involve friendly ground and airborne forces pointing out targets to friendly fighter aircraft orbiting overhead. The fighter aircraft then deliver weapons on the targets.

The group on the ground was in and around several vehicles, which officials say could have been mistaken for targets on the range. The military commonly uses burned-out vehicles for target practice.

As the accident happened after dark, the pilot and troops on the ground should have been wearing night-vision goggles. The most common way to designate a target at night is to illuminate it from a safe distance with an infrared flashlight beam or low-powered laser that can been clearly seen with night-vision goggles.

Bush Calls For ‘Moment Of Silence’

President Bush, speaking at a engagement in Panama City, Fla., asked for a moment of silence for the dead military personnel.

"We lost some servicemen today in Kuwait on a training accident. I hope you'll join me in a moment of silence for those soldiers and their families," he said.

“I am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life and injuries that occurred during the combined air-to-ground training accident in Kuwait today. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of our fellow servicemembers, from the United States as well as New Zealand," said Adm. Vern Clark, Chief of Naval Operations.

High-Profile Mishaps

There have been a number of recent high-profile military mishaps in addition to the accidental sinking of the Japanese trawler. There were two fatal crashes of Marine Corps Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, in April and December.

However, the Pentagon says it has observed a decrease in military aviation accidents last year. There were 57 crashes of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft in fiscal year 2000, compared to 73 in 1999. More personnel died, however, in 2000 — 58, as opposed to 44 in 1999.

For all fatalities, including those not involving aircraft, the Navy reports a general trend downward. From 1990 to 1995, the Navy reported 325 people killed in mishaps. From 1996 to 2000, 225 were killed in mishaps.

Some 4,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Kuwait. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have air bases for pilots patrolling the "no-fly zone" over Iraq, and U.S. ground troops are also stationed near the Kuwait-Iraq border.

ABCNEWS correspondent John McWethy contributed to this report.