IN February, I visited the USS Vincennes off the coast of California as part of a ``Quick Look'' visit arranged by the Navy for several congressmen on key committees. I met Capt. Will Rogers, was briefed on the ship's systems (particularly the Aegis radar setup), and observed the cruiser in action. I came away deeply impressed with the degree of training and competence of the men who serve aboard her. But even with the best technology and the best sailors in any navy, the Vincennes was unable to avoid mistaking an Iranian civilian airliner for a hostile F-14 fighter. Regardless of the outcome of the intensive investigation under way, I believe that the tragedy must ultimately be blamed not on a breakdown of technology, or on human error, but on a failure of policy.
The issue is not whether Captain Rogers's decision was justified, but why he and his crew were faced with such circumstances. Was it necessary for the Vincennes to be in the Gulf at all?
It is time to undertake a vigorous reassessment of the objectives and accomplishments of the US naval presence in the Gulf. The commander in chief has put men like Rogers and Capt. Glenn Brindel in an untenable position. Captain Brindel, commander of the USS Stark, was uncertain about an approaching aircraft, decided not to pull the trigger, and was hit by two Exocet missiles fired by a so-called ``friendly'' combat aircraft. Thirty-seven members of his crew were killed. Rogers was uncertain, and - with the Stark no doubt weighing heavily on his mind - pulled the trigger, blowing a civilian airliner carrying 290 innocents out of the sky.
What are US naval commanders to do now? Remember the Stark? Remember the Vincennes? Now that the two worst possibilities have occurred, the fear of miscalculation can only be greater.
To be sure, uncertainty, confusion, and mistaken identity are frequent facts of war. The United States government accepts that the Iraqi pilot who ambushed the Stark made an honest mistake. The US government expects Iran to believe that Rogers made an honest mistake.
Accidents and tragedies occur in war. But the US is not at war.
President Reagan has not complied with the War Powers Resolution with respect to US combat operations in the Gulf, a step that he should take as a minimum reaction to this event. If US forces are sufficiently threatened to compel them to shoot down a civilian airliner, then certainly the resolution's key phrase applies: ``...introduction of US Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.'' Iran's threat to retaliate makes ``imminent involvement'' all the more relevant.
Let us not forget that minutes earlier the Vincennes had engaged in combat with Iranian vessels, or that 11 weeks earlier US warships destroyed two Iranian oil rigs and sank or damaged six Iranian vessels in retaliation for mining the USS Samuel B. Roberts. The President should stop ignoring the law and allow Congress to explicitly authorize - or put an end to - the present combat deployment.
In fact, the ever-increasing US military operations have in some ways been counterproductive. The American ships are supposed to be protecting the flow of oil and freedom of the seas, but the US-established precedent of escorting vessels has also given the Soviet Navy a legitimate reason for being in the Gulf.
Moreover, the Gulf operations have been very costly: operating costs of some $20 million per month; equipment losses and damage totaling hundreds of millions of dollars more; and, most tragically, an American combat death toll of 39.
Perhaps most important, our military presence has not contributed to a resolution of the Iraq-Iran conflict. To the contrary, it has only inflamed the situation and increased the chances for escalation and tragedy. We are not making the Gulf a safer place.
Iran's announced acceptance of UN Resolution 598 - a decision brought on by recent Iraqi military victories on land - is an encouraging development, although only time will tell if it truly signals the beginning of the end of the war.
The administration should seize the moment to lessen tensions in the Gulf by lowering the US military profile. Several members of Congress have called for an international fleet to take the place of the US Navy - an admitted improvement; but our allies seem reluctant to go along.
Perhaps they understand that a large-scale naval force simply cannot be effective in the Gulf. The fewer military vessels in the Gulf, the better. The US should keep the half dozen or so ships of the Mid East Force in the Gulf (the standard presence in the past) and keep a larger deployment nearby in the Indian Ocean for a period of time.
The US Navy has been given an impossible mission. The Vincennes and most of its sister ships in the US flotilla were not designed to operate in a small, confined waterway with heavy civilian air and sea traffic. Let's get them out.
Congressman Robert J. Mrazek (D) of New York, a Navy veteran, serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.