i am a sailor in the Royal Australian Navy and this incident which occurred in the Persian Gulf in the year 1988 involving the US Navy has interested me a lot. Here's the story: (a lot to read i know)
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 Hormuz—about 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". 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 ("Identify—friend 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 one—they 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".
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 airport—or 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 it—it 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.
Crowe asserted that "we were extremely careful to keep Congress informed" and that "we notified Congress accurately and speedily of all our engagements—whether 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 public—Crowe 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.
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. 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."
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).
First i would like to talk about some of the roles in the operations room (ops room).
Air Picture Supervisor (APS)- The APS marks all the Air contacts on his combat system (RADAR display) and gives them a sign (Assumed friend, friend, assumed hostile, hostile etc.) and reports this to the PWO.
Principle Warfare Officer (PWO)- This guy supervises the APS (and pretty much all of the warfare related occurences in the ops room) and in the case of Vincennes the PWO should have checked and double checked the hostile contact and made sure that it was hostile.
What should usually happen is when a contact is tagged as hostile, it should be checked by the PWO and double checked by the AWO etc.
Now IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) is something that is emitted from a contact (in this case an aircraft) and tells the ops room if it is either a civilian or military contact. The APS should have received the IFF as being civilian but as stated in the story above, the airport was used by both military and civilian. So what most likely happened is that the APS picked up IFF from the wrong contact and did not double check it which was a huge mistake that the PWO should have rectified.
So now Vincennes had what they thought to be an F-14 coming towards them in retaliation to the fire fight between the helo and Iranian gunboats.
The captain of Vincennes therefore gave the order to fire on the suspected F-14 which i think was purely idiotic. When a ship locks onto a target that it is about to blow up with missiles the RADAR illuminates the target which in an F-14 would start bleeping alarms in the cockpit warning the pilot to get the hell out of the way. but the aircraft did not change course because it was not an F-14. they say they shot it down at 20 miles away which is way way way to close for any experienced fighter pilot to be. if the aircraft was indeed hostile and wanted to harm the Vincennes then it would have let go a few missiles a lot further away then at the range it was and then altered its course. But the aircraft kept on its course.
The Vincennes sent out radio transmissions on military frequencies and emergency frequencies etc to the aircraft but because this aircraft was a civilian airbus and not a military aircraft it did not receive the military transmissions. and so the Vincennes made a decision which cost the lives of 290 people 66 of which were children.
The Vincennes was in Iran territorial waters when they shot down this civilian flight and i put it down to the captain of the Vincennes to being to gun happy and entering Iran's territorial waters just to provoke the Iranian gunboats more.
the crew and the captain of the Vincennes received awards for their work that day in the gulf, and the American Government has still til this day, not made any apology or even admitted that they were in the wrong.
there are a few conspiracies about this day that are going around about the American Government Purposely Provoking the Iranians in their own waters to start conflict so that they could aid Iraq in their war against Iran etc.
Besides these conspiracies it could be put down to a lot of human error that just had a domino effect which ended in the loss of 290 civilian lives.
i want to know what everyone thinks about this and i'm not use to writing forum posts this in depth so please tell me if i have missed out anything you would want to know or if i have made any errors. and any questions ill be happy to answer or find out for you.
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