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Iran Air Shot Down - July 3, 1988

Iran AirSummary: On patrol in the Persian Gulf, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet that it had mistaken for a hostile Iranian fighter aircraft. U.S. Navy Captain Will C. Rogers III ordered a single missile fired from his warship, which hit its target and killed all 290 people aboard the commercial airbus. The attack came towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War, while U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf had been patrolling to ward off Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers. The international community was outraged by the American attack on a large civilian aircraft, but the Pentagon and White House defended the action. The United States claimed that the aircraft was outside the commercial jet flight corridor, flying at only 7,000 feet, and on a descent toward the Vincennes. One month later, U.S. authorities admitted that both the Vincennes and the airbus had been within a recognized commercial flightpath, and that the Iranian jet was flying at 12,000 feet and not descending. The U.S. Navy's final report blamed crew error caused by psychological stress on men in combat for the first time.


 Details: An Iran Air passenger plane, Flight 655, was shot down by the U.S.S. Vincennes--a U.S. Navy warship--killing all 290 passengers and crew as the plane flew over the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Stationed in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, U.S. presence was intended to escort and defend Kuwait oil tankers registered under the U.S. flag. The crew of the Vincennes, in battle with gunboats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that were harassing the passing oil tankers at the time, apparently misidentified the plane as an Iranian F-14 fighter. Tracking the plane's approach, the Vincennes radioed repeated warnings to the Iran Air plane not to approach. When it became obvious that the crew of the plane would not concede, the Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles, exploding the plane.

 

Questions abounded about how the bulky passenger plane could have been mistaken for an F-14 fighter plane, which is much smaller and sleeker--about a third of the size of the Boeing 747 passenger plane. However, due to the sand haze from the Arabian Desert that shrouded the Gulf, the approaching plane was not visible to the naked eye, even at the nine-mile mark where the Vincennes fired. Additionally, the plane was flying towards the warship head-on, showing a smaller dot on the radar than it would have from the side. Further adding to the confusion, the passenger flight had taken off from Bandar Abbas airport, which served both civilian and military craft and happened to be the center of Iran's F-14 operations. Any plane lifting off from Bandar Abbas was automatically tracked and assumed hostile until shown to be otherwise. No Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System or Navy Hawkeye sentry planes were positioned over the Gulf to provide further identification of the aircraft, leaving the ship to rely on its own communication tools and instinct to make a decision.

 

Several contradictions exist in the telling of the events surrounding the attack on Flight 655. U.S. Navy Capt. Will C. Rogers III had received orders earlier to stay in a position where the Vincennes could monitor the movement of the Iranian gunboats. When the Vincennes fired on the Iran Air flight, claiming that it was four miles outside of the standard commercial flight path from Bandar Abbas airport in Iran to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, records show that the Vincennes was actually inside of Iran's territorial waters, not forty miles south (where the ship had been ordered by fleet headquarters to stay) as Rogers and government reports had claimed. Furthermore, Flight 655 was directly inside of its commercial flight path, not four miles outside of it--as Rogers and the Vincennes crew also claimed.

 

The reason for Rogers moving the Vincennes so far away from his ordered post? The warship was purportedly off to defend its helicopter, which had been deployed--under orders from fleet headquarters--on a reconnaissance mission, to check out the group of gunboats hovering further north. Anti-aircraft rounds from one or more of the gunboats were fired, giving Rogers reason to approach; when the Vincennes arrived on the scene, lookouts reported that a few of the gunboats were headed towards the ship. It remains unclear whether this was actually the case: the gunboats likely couldn't see the Vincennes, with their low profiles and amidst the sandy haze hovering over the gulf; also, the gunboats were within Iranian territorial waters--firing on them here would be a breach of international law.

 

Unfortunately, that is exactly what Rogers decided to do. It was in the midst of this gunfire that Flight 655 took off, and was (as is routine) identified initially as a hostile aircraft by the Vincennes' AEGIS monitoring system. The first person to try to establish the plane's identity was Petty Officer Andrew Anderson, who sent out the electronic query, "Identify, Friend or Foe?" The automated response from Flight 655 came back as "commair"--a commercial airliner. Anderson tried to confirm this, but in checking navy listings of scheduled flights over the Gulf, Anderson apparently missed Flight 655, possibly confused by the Gulf's four different time zones. The Vincennes sent out the first of four warnings over the military emergency channel for the plane to change its course. Three subsequent warnings were sent out over the civilian emergency channel as well, although none were broadcast over air traffic control--despite the Vincennes having the capability. It is speculated that inside the cockpit of Flight 655, all channels were in use communicating with ground control, since the plane had just taken off. When Anderson again sent out the "Identify, Friend or Foe?" query, he received a different response: military aircraft. Rogers' decision to fire was made while under the impression that the query was correct--in fact, Anderson had forgotten to reset the system after the first query, and the response he received was probably from a fighter plane on the runway back at Bandar Abbas. Rogers held that, at the time that he ordered for the crew to fire, the plane was descending and rapidly approaching--in fact, Flight 655 was actually ascending, and its speed was holding steady.

 

Still more factors come into play. The captains of all of the ships stationed in the Persian Gulf were under specific "Rules of Engagement" at that time, with orders to fire to avoid being fired upon. The heightened response to aircraft was due to an incident the previous year when the USS Stark was fired upon by an Iraqi fighter plane, killing thirty-seven American sailors. Navy officials reported also that on at least eight separate counts, Iraqi commercial planes had flown over commercial warships in what they deemed "a threatening manner"--possibly leading to anxious crew conditions. In fact, the U.S. military later issued a statement holding the crew accountable for the shooting, but held that their actions were influenced by the stress of being in battle for the first time.

 

In the end, nothing in the way of punishment happened to Rogers and his crew. Rogers became a military instructor, and then retired in 1991. The crew of the Vincennes received combat-action ribbons. The air warfare coordinator on board, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Lustig, received a commendation medal for his ability to "quickly and precisely complete the firing procedure"--the same firing procedure that shot down Flight 655.