From the Monitor Archives: The shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655

Passenger jets being shot out of the sky is rare. One of those instances was in 1988, when the USS Vincennes mistakenly downed Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz.

The apparent shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight near the Russia-Ukraine border today, being blamed on Russian-backed separatists by Kiev, is a rare occurrence of civil aviation coming up against modern missiles. The USS Vincennes incident was another. Below are two pieces from the Monitor's coverage of that tragedy at the time. The first is from shortly after the attack on July 3, 1988, the second is a follow-up on the Navy's findings a month later.

(From the July 5, 1988 Christian Science Monitor by Warren Richey)

The Iranian commercial jetliner shot down Sunday over the Strait of Hormuz followed the same flight profile established by Iranian F-14 jets in recent days, according to a reliable source in the Gulf who asks not to be named.

The source says the F-14s had a routine of approaching the US cruiser Vincennes, provoking a radioed warning, and then flying off in the week before the shootdown, the source says. The information suggests that previous Iranian jetfighter activity may have contributed to the identification by the US warship of the commercial jet as a fighter.

But it leaves unresolved the major question of why officers on the state-of-the-art cruiser Vincennes were unable to distinguish between an F-14 fighter and a large, slow, commercial Airbus.

Commercial airliners throughout the world are equipped with special transponders that automatically identify them as nonbelligerent aircraft. The Iranian Airbus’s transponder was either out of order or switched off, according to US officials. And experts say that on a radar screen an Airbus at 7,000 feet appears little different than an F-14.

In addition, radar and electronic warfare technicians on the Vincennes detected “electronic emanations" that led them to believe the plane was an F-14 fighter.

That mystery deepened yesterday with a statement from the Italian Navy that an Italian warship in the area at the time of the shootdown detected two planes but was unable to identify them as either commercial or military aircraft. The statement said Italian officers assumed one of the planes was an F-14, but the other plane was not identified as an Airbus until after the shootdown.

[Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty and a US Navy team started for the Middle East yesterday to investigate the incident, the Associated Press reported.)
The Iranian Airbus, Flight 655 from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, was traveling at roughly 500 miles an hour at 7,000 feet and descending when it was destroyed by a US surface-to-air missile from the Vincennes, which was militarily engaging three Iranian gunboats at the time.

The aircraft was reportedly off its filed flight course by at least four miles, and was nine miles away and headed toward the Vincennes when the missiles were launched.

Had the plane been an F-14, or had an F-14 been flying close by, it might have been only a matter of seconds before the launch of an anti-ship missile. There was no time for the ship’s crew to check their conclusions with a visual sighting, US officials say.

Two missiles were fired at the Iranian Airbus after it failed to respond to seven radio warnings. All 290 persons on board the Iranian airliner were killed.
The shootdown has heightened tension throughout the region as the Gulf braces for a potential violent response from Iran.

“The criminal United States should know that the unlawfully shed blood in the disaster ... will be avenged in the same blood-spattered sky over the Persian Gulf," said Radio Tehran.

Diplomatic analysts say that with Iran’s military in apparent disarray after battlefield defeats to Iraq in the land war and against the US Navy in the Gulf, Iran will be hard-pressed to respond militarily. Several diplomats say Iran is likely to consider carrying out or encouraging terrorist attacks against US targets.

“They have no other means, but they can create great problems for the United States through terrorism,’’ says a diplomat from the region. “They have got to hit something that is directly linked to the United States, that is for sure,” says a Western diplomat stationed in the Gulf. “They are not going to let it go by without doing something.”

“This is actually the first tangible thing that the Iranian people have [to show] that America really is a ‘Great Satan,’ ’’ says a Kuwait-based Western diplomat, referring to Tehran’s standard depiction of the US. “I’m sure most Iranians are horrified by this. Their feelings against America will be much harder,” he adds.

Iran’s foreign minister has asked the UN Secretary-General to conduct an onsite investigation of the incident. Ali Akbar Velayati also said in a letter that Iran expects the UN secretary-general and Security Council to condemn the incident and prevent its recurrence “which is only possible through compelling the US to remove its expansionist naval forces from the Persian Gulf.”

[In reactions from around the world, the Associated Press reported that the Soviet Union Monday criticized the US Navy for being “trigger-happy.” Arab Gulf nations, which rely on US naval protection for commercial shipping, renewed urgent appeals for peace.]

(From the Aug. 4, 1988 Christian Science Monitor by Peter Grier).

The stress of first-time combat caused the USS Vincennes crew to shoot down an Iranian airliner in the mistaken belief that it was an F-14 jet fighter.
That’s the conclusion of a military inquiry into last month’s Gulf tragedy, according to published reports.

The inquiry has determined that the Vincennes’ fancy Aegis radar did not malfunction. Instead, skittish radar operators wrongly interpreted information on the screens in front of them, and identified the oncoming blip of Iran Air Flight 655 as hostile, according to press reports.

Computerized records from the Vincennes have apparently established that the Iranian airliner was traveling much more slowly than thought on the day of the attack, and was climbing instead of descending in an attack profile.

It is still not clear whether Vincennes Capt. Will Rogers III was himself at fault in ordering destruction of the civilian plane. Information about speed and altitude would not have been shown on the large display screens he would likely have been watching. Instead, that information was available to Vincennes radar operators, and may or may not have been passed along accurately to their commander.

Other US ships have prepared to shoot at blips, which were identified as civilian in the nick of time.

It is also not clear what the inquiry has determined about the conflicting transponder signals the Vincennes says it received. Transponder signals are, in essence, what a plane uses to announce its identity to the outside world, and Iran Air 655 was sending both a civilian and military transponder signal, Pentagon officials say.

The Department of Defense had no immediate official response to the disclosures about the inquiry. A number of Pentagon officials said yesterday that they were not sure the inquiry had completed its work, and declined comment pending disclosure of more details.

President Reagan, at a brief press conference yesterday, also declined comment, saying “neither the military nor my office has received that report.” Running radar-picket duty in the Gulf, as the Vincennes was doing, is indeed a stressful job, Pentagon officials agree. Unlike the all-out conflict for which Aegis radar is designed, the Gulf situation is half-peace and half-war, meaning radar operators are constantly watching a swarm of tracks, not knowing which ones might turn out to be hostile.

Other US Navy ships have unholstered their missiles and prepared to shoot at blips, which were identified as civilian in the nick of time. In this sense, the Vincennes incident was simply an accident waiting to happen, military officers say.

Any edginess on the part of the Vincennes crew could well have been exacerbated by their knowledge of the ship’s value.

The USS Stark, struck last year by Iraqi missiles, was a relatively inexpensive frigate, the economy car of the Navy. Aegis cruisers such as the Vincennes, on the other hand, are the Mercedes of the surface fleet, designed for general war at sea and worth over a billion dollars each.

Many Navy admirals have bitterly criticized the decision to send Aegis cruisers to the Gulf for just that reason. Less complicated ships could do the job just as well, they say, with corresponding less risk of loss of US taxpayers’ money.

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