On 3 July 1988, a plane is blown out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people. Part of a hijacking? Yet another act of terrorism? No. Iran Air flight 655 was shot down by the United States Navy. The ship in question was the Aegis Cruiser the USS Vincennes.
It was during the Iran-Iraq war, US naval vessels were helping to escort ships through the Persian Gulf. Iranian gunboats had been harassing and attacking oil tankers and other ships going to and from Kuwait, Iraq's main ally (ironically). In order to keep the oil moving, the US had its ships escorting them under the US flag. That morning, the Navy frigate Montgomery was escorting through the Strait of Hormuzabout 32 miles (51.5 km) at the entrance, which opens into the Gulf of Oman.
Around 6:50 AM (local time), it reported about thirteen Iranian gunboats were going after one of the tankers and that (about twenty minutes later) explosions were heard near one of the tankers. The commander of the Joint Task Force-Middle East ordered the Vincennes north of its position to investigate (yet still south of the situation). The ship was also to stay out of any "action"the purpose was to have the ship's helicopter to do reconnaissance.
The helicopter approached, finding the gunboats harassing a German vessel. The commander of the Vincennes, Captain Will Rogers III, put his men on alert. Around 8:40, it was found that the ship had moved farther north (by about 40 miles/64.3 km) than it was supposed to and it was ordered to go south to its original position. Further, the Omani Coast Guard was also radioing the ship, stating that it was "not in accordance with innocent passage. Please leave Omani water" (www.geocities.com). They gave warnings to the Iranians as well. A navy cameraman happened to be shooting videotape on the ship that day and caught the looks of dismissiveness on the faces of the officers as they ignored the Omani request.
Rogers did move the Vincennes but left the helicopter in the area to follow the gunboats, which began taking on antiaircraft fire. Rather than returning to the ship, the helicopter began "evasive action." When that message was received, Rogers had the ship rush north to the site. He felt that under the US rules of engagement, he was allowed to defend his helicopter (technically he was, but it was another piece of what became a fatal puzzle). At about 9:40, the ship crossed into Iranian territorial waters and engaged the gunboats.
Meanwhile, at Bandar Abbas airport, the Iran Air flight 655 was readying to take off for a routine flight to Dubai. The airport had a dual use, serving both civilian and military flights. Because of this (and the mounting "situation"), the unsuspecting airbus with 290 passengers was immediately listed as being "assumed hostile." The Aegis computer started tracking it. Its (scheduled) flight would cross over the Vincennes. (Interestingly, the USS Sides tracked it as a civilian plane, being the first to suggest that was what had been shot down.)
The Vincennes sent out IFF ("Identifyfriend or foe") messages, getting no reply (see below). They also sent out seven "warning" messages, four on military bands, three on civilian (the USS Sides sent five of its own). Still no reply. Being a nonmilitary flight coming from an airport that had both civilian and military flights, would make it unlikely it would respond to a message on a military band and it was not uncommon for American queries to be ignored by civilian flights (reportedly, the navy would send warnings to just about any flight, regardless of their position or direction). Also, there was a lot of air control talk filling the various bandwidths. Further, the civilian tower at Bandar Abbas had not been monitoring the military onethey were not aware of the battle going on only 55 miles (88.5 km) away. Of course, one has to question why the plane would respond to "Iranian F-14, this is USN warship heading 199, 20 miles. Request you change course immediately" (www.geocities.com).
At 9:51, an IFF "reply" was received. A military one. At that time it was upgraded to "hostile." It is likely that the reply came from one of the military planes at the airportor elsewhere, given a range of 200 miles/321.8 km (apparently, the range on the IFF had not been reset as it should have been). One of the things in the minds of the crew of the Vincennes was the incident with the USS Stark, when an Iraqi Mirage accidentally shot the ship, killing thirty-seven crew members (after having been "warned" by the Stark).
When the plane (now thought to be an F-14) got within 20 miles (32.1 km) of the ship (about 10:00), two missiles were fired, destroying the plane and its passengers (it landed about 6 miles/9.6 km from the ship). One man on the ship, reportedly noted that the wreckage was too big to have been a small fighter. On the Montgomery, crewmen witnessed the wing (engine still attached) land in the sea. It was no F-14 (which probably couldn't have done significant damage to the ship as the planes sold to Iran by the US were built for attacking other fighters, not ground targets).
The following day, the Pentagon held a news conference on the incident. After originally having flatly denied Iran's version of the event, saying that it had shot down an F-14 fighter and not a civilian aircraft, the State Department (after a review of the evidence) admitted the downing of Iran Air 655. It was claimed that the plane had "strayed too close to two U.S. Navy warships that were engaged in a battle with Iranian gunboats" and, according to the spokesman, that the "proper defensive action" was taken (in part) because the "suspect aircraft was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor" (Washington Post).
That it "strayed" from its normal, scheduled flight path is factually incorrect. And so was the claim that it was heading right for the ship and "descending" (emphasis, mine) toward itit was ascending. Another "error" was the contention that it took place in international waters (it did not, a fact only later admitted by the government). Incorrect maps were used when Congress was briefed on the incident.
Writers from Newsweek immediately called it a cover-up, followed by angry letters attempting to refute the story ("Sea of Lies") that appeared 13 July 1992. In an appearance on the late night news show Nightline, Admiral William J. Crowe (who had spoken at the news conference) attacked the story, calling it "inflated and outrageous rhetoric" and that its evidence was made up of "very slim and mistaken information."
Crowe asserted that "we were extremely careful to keep Congress informed" and that "we notified Congress accurately and speedily of all our engagementswhether the news was good or bad." He admitted that "mistakes" were made that morning "and in the time that followed," but that "making mistakes is a long step from a deliberate 'cover-up.'" As for being in Iranian territorial waters (as noted, one of those "mistakes" presented to the publicCrowe claiming it was admitted to in the classified report to Congress), "a warship acting in self defense has the right under international law to enter the aggressor waters and defend itself." That the ship, under the rules of engagement, was "clearly permitted entering Iran's waters if his ship was under imminent threat or engaged." That the Vincennes was not under "imminent threat" (at least from the plane) or supposed to be actively engaging itself, seems forgotten.
On the other hand, while it seems that there may have been a great deal of damage control and spin going on (some of the errors possibly due to incomplete information), the charge seems a bit strong.
Explanations & Errors
That what happened was avoidable seems obvious. That the net of errors, mistakes, and expectations led to the tragic cause and effect that resulted in the deaths of each of those passengers seems equally obvious.
(In addition to points mentioned above.) One of the first problems was that the Aegis system was never designed to be used in a small space like the Persian Gulf, but large open areas like the Atlanticmeant to protect whole carrier groups on the open sea. This is alluded to in the press conference with Crowe's remarks about the lack of time to investigate and maneuver: "In the Persian Gulf...we're fighting in a lake" (the conclusion not being his). The equipment is meant to give ample warning to the crew of a naval vessel pertaining to incoming aircraft or missiles. In an area where it could give no adequate time, it was simply out of place.
Because they were relying on electronic monitoring (there was no visual confirmation of anything until it was hit), there was no way to distinguish the plane from a "hostile." On the other hand, planes from the carrier the USS Forrestal had been launched around 9:38, in case they would be needed (upon hearing the news of the helicopter taking fire). They were not to engage but could have been used to get a confirmation on the "hostile." As with the Sides, the men on the Forestall believed it to be a commercial flight and the planes were held back.
Rogers' misinterpretations/direct disobeying of orders (and requests from Oman) as well as his insistence on leaving the helicopter in the area were part of the equation. As was the helicopter remaining near the gunboats following its being fired upon. Once the helicopter could be extricated, a better choice of action would have been to disengage.
Commercial flights in the Gulf were not routinely monitored by the naval forces in the area (a fundamental error given the circumstances; it was corrected in the wake of the tragedy). Someone somehow missed the flight listing for 655 in the navy's schedule of commercial airline flights. At some point in the control room, someone reportedly "shouted out 'Possible COMAIR'": a commercial air line (www.geocities.com). Questions of whether there had been adequate training for the men also came up during the investigation. Information was available or relatively easily obtained. Safeguards should have been in place.
That replies from the pilot of the Iranian airplane could have defused the situation is also clear. But his actions were not alone in when eventually happened (nor was he wielding deadly force). The State Department placed a vast majority of the blame on the pilot (at least initially) as would be expected. On the Nightline program, Crowe spoke of the "Iranian role in the Airbus tragedy," charging that "there was no coordination between Iranian surface raiders and civil air authorities. The tower at Bandar Abbas airport did not monitor emergency frequencies and therefore failed to alert the pilots of the Airbus."
Apparently, civil air authorities had cause to be worried about being attacked by the US Navy to the extent that such "coordination" was necessary. It smacks of blaming the victimnot to say the Iranian pilot and other non-US reasons didn't play a role in what happened, as they surely did. Of course, if the roles were reversed, condemnation for Iran's "atrocity" would be wideranging.
Coverage & KAL 007
Iran was outraged calling it a "barbaric massacre" (WP), taking the case to the United Nations (where they got nowhere), comparing the incident to the Soviet Union shooting down the Korean Airlines Flight 007 five years earlier (269 passengers died). While the stories aren't analogous (the flight had intruded into Soviet airspace; in this case there was a cover-up), the reaction to the shooting down of a civilian airliner (again through a series of errors and poor judgmentboth of catastrophic and tragic proportions) is interesting.
According to the New York Times, following the 007 incident, "There is no conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner" and "no circumstance whatever justifies attacking an innocent plane." The editorial was titled "Murder in the Air," clearly showing how it was to be viewed. CBS anchor Dan Rather called it a "barbaric act" (recall Iran's outcry about 655). The UN Security Council voted to condemn the act (another example of the different reaction). There was outrage and righteous condemnation directed at the official enemy of the state by those who (necessarily) hold the higher moral ground.
All of which was nowhere to be found when the US did nearly the same thing. It was specifically denied to be similar, Crowe mentioning "fundamental differences" between the twothat is was not in a "war zone," that "there was not combat in progress," and "it was at a very high altitude" (an irrelevant "fundamental difference")as quoted in the Washington Post. President Ronald Reagan stated that with 007, "a group of Soviet fighter planes went up, identified the plane for what it was and then proceeded to shoot it down. There's no comparison" (www.fair.org). This was a lie (or another example of Reagan being totally unaware of what went on around him as was suggested during the fallout from Iran-Contra)the administration knew within days that the Soviets had thought all along that it was a military plane doing spying. The same sort of misidentifications, errors, and such that led to certain expectations and the same result as it did for those in the Gulf.
But the Soviet Union was the enemy and any transgression had to be viewed in the most negative terms, as a matter of course. For the US, it was enough to "deeply regret any loss of life" and to officially state that "our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew, and their families," since, we will recall, that it was "proper defensive action" and that "given the threatening flight profile and decreasing range, the aircraft was declared hostile" (WP). It was a terrible accident (yes, though with qualificationthe point being that, so was the KAL incident).
According to another Times editorial (six days after the incident), "to proclaim a 'right' to shoot down suspicious planes does not make it right to do so" (www.fair.org). The double standard is clear.
Families of the victims (victims themselves) attempted to file suit against the federal government on the basis that since the two countries were not at war, there was no immunity from litigation over combat injuries. The Supreme Court refused the case in 1993. Earlier courts had ruled that, since suing over "negligence by soldiers in wartime" is not allowed" and that "there can be no doubt that during the 'tanker war' a 'time of war' existed" (www.geocities.com, second quote from the decision).
The US had compensated non-Iranian victims about 2.9 million dollars (not acknowledging any responsibility) but nothing to Iranian family members. In 1996, a 131.8 million dollar settlement was reached that included the ignored families (61.8 million). Seventy million was to be put into bank accounts and used to "pay off private U.S. claims against Iran and Iran's expenses for the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, which is handling the claims." The US stated it was for claims "involving banking matters, not the airliner," while Iran said that 30 million was for the plane (collegian.ksu.edu).
The official history available for the USS Vincennes at the Commander Naval Surface Force US Pacific Fleet (ComNavSurfPac) site does not mention the incident. The total text devoted to its time in the Gulf is as follows:
On 20 April 1988, during Fleet Exercise 88-1, VINCENNES was given unexpected orders to proceed back to San Diego and make preparations to leave on a six month deployment. One month later, the ship entered the Persian Gulf, to become part of the Joint Task Force in the Persian Gulf. During the course of this assignment it made fourteen transits of the Straits of Hormuz in support of Operation Earnest Will.
(Sources: www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/5260/vince.html, members.aol.com/nextarmy/Nvic.txt, www.fas.org/news/iran/1992/920721-236044.htm, collegian.ksu.edu/issues/v100/sp/n100/AP-Iran.html, www.fair.org/extra/best-of-extra/kal007-iranair655.html, Washington Post story was from www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/5260/july88crash.html, www.surfpac.navy.mil/shipsnav/Vincennes/vichist.htm)