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Wed Jul 3, 2019, 06:23 AM

31 Years Ago Today; USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655


An Airbus A300 similar to the aircraft involved in the incident, EP-IBT

Iran Air Flight 655 was a scheduled passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai via Bandar Abbas, that was shot down on 3 July 1988 by an SM-2MR surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser of the United States Navy. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, was destroyed and all 290 people on board, including 66 children, were killed. The jet was hit while flying over Iran's territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, along the flight's usual route, shortly after departing Bandar Abbas International Airport, the flight's stopover location. Vincennes had entered Iranian territory after one of its helicopters drew warning fire from Iranian speedboats operating within Iranian territorial limits.

The reason for the shootdown has been disputed between the governments of the two countries. According to the United States government, the crew of USS Vincennes had incorrectly identified the Airbus as an attacking F-14 Tomcat, a U.S.-made jet fighter that had been part of the Iranian Air Force inventory since the 1970s. While the F-14s had been supplied to Iran in an air-to-air configuration, the crew of the guided missile cruiser had been briefed that the Iranian F-14s were equipped with air-to-ground ordnance. Vincennes had made ten attempts to contact the aircraft on both military and civilian radio frequencies, but had received no response. The International Civil Aviation Organization said that the flight crew should have been monitoring the civilian frequency. According to the Iranian government, the cruiser negligently shot down the aircraft, which was transmitting IFF squawks in Mode III, a signal that identified it as a civilian aircraft, and not Mode II as used by Iranian military aircraft. The event generated a great deal of criticism of the United States. Some analysts blamed the captain of Vincennes, William C. Rogers III, for overly-aggressive behavior in a tense and dangerous environment. In the days immediately following the incident, US President Ronald Reagan issued a written diplomatic note to the Iranian government, expressing deep regret.

In 1996, the governments of the United States and Iran reached a settlement at the International Court of Justice which included the statement "...the United States recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident..." As part of the settlement, even though the U.S. government did not admit legal liability or formally apologize to Iran, it still agreed to pay US$61.8 million on an ex gratia basis, amounting to $213,103.45 per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims.

The shootdown is the deadliest aviation disaster involving an Airbus A300, as well as the deadliest to occur in Iran.


Shootdown of Flight 655

Locater map depicting Iran Air 655's origination point, destination and approximate shootdown location. (Air corridor not necessarily a direct path.)

The plane, an Airbus A300 (registered as EP-IBU), flown by 37-year-old Captain Mohsen Rezaian, a veteran pilot with 7,000 hours of flight time, left Bandar Abbas at 10:17 Iran time (UTC+03:30), 27 minutes after its scheduled departure time. It should have been a 28-minute flight. After takeoff, it was directed by the Bandar Abbas tower to turn on its transponder and proceed over the Persian Gulf. The flight was assigned routinely to commercial air corridor Amber 59, a 20-mile (32 km)-wide lane on a direct line to Dubai airport. The short distance made for a simple flight pattern: climb to 14,000 feet (4,300 m), cruise, and descend into Dubai. The airliner was transmitting the correct transponder "squawk" code typical of a civilian aircraft and maintained radio contact in English with appropriate air traffic control facilities.

Aegis screen displays in the combat information center on board Vincennes

On the morning of 3 July 1988, USS Vincennes was passing through the Strait of Hormuz returning from an escort duty. A helicopter deployed from the cruiser reportedly received small arms fire from Iranian patrol vessels as it observed from high altitude. Vincennes moved to engage the Iranian vessels, in the course of which they all violated Omani waters and left after being challenged and ordered to leave by a Royal Navy of Oman warship. Vincennes then pursued the Iranian gunboats, entering Iranian territorial waters to open fire. USS Sides and USS Elmer Montgomery were nearby. Thus, Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident, as admitted by the U.S. government in legal briefs and publicly by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, on Nightline. Admiral Crowe denied a U.S. government coverup of the incident and claimed that the cruiser's helicopter was over international waters initially, when the gunboats first fired upon it.

Contrary to the accounts of various Vincennes crew members, the cruiser's Aegis Combat System recorded that the airliner was climbing at the time and its radio transmitter was squawking on only the Mode III civilian frequency, and not on the military Mode II.

After receiving no response to multiple radio challenges, and believing the airliner was an Iranian F-14 Tomcat (capable of carrying unguided bombs since 1985) diving into an attack profile, Vincennes fired two SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles, one of which hit the airliner. The plane disintegrated immediately and crashed into the water soon after. None of the 290 passengers and crew on board survived. The cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder were never found.

Nationalities of the victims
According to the documents that Iran submitted to the International Court of Justice, the aircraft was carrying 290 people: 274 passengers and a crew of 16. Of these 290, 254 were Iranian, 13 were Emiratis, 10 were Indians, six were Pakistanis, six were Yugoslavs and one was an Italian.

Nationality Passengers Crew Total
Iran 238 16 254
United Arab Emirates 13 0 13
India 10 0 10
Pakistan 6 0 6
Yugoslavia 6 0 6
Italy 1 0 1
Total 274 16 290

U.S. government accounts

A missile departs the forward launcher of Vincennes during a 1987 exercise. The same launcher was used in Flight 655's downing.

According to the U.S. government, USS Vincennes mistakenly identified the airliner as an attacking military fighter and misidentified its flight profile as being similar to that of an F-14A Tomcat during an attack run; however, the cruiser's Aegis Combat System recorded the plane's flight plan as climbing (not descending as in an attack run) at the time of the incident. The flight had originated at Bandar Abbas, which served as both a base for Iranian F-14 operations and as a hub for commercial civilian flights. According to the same reports, Vincennes unsuccessfully tried to contact the approaching aircraft, seven times on the military emergency frequency and three times on the civilian emergency frequency, but never on air traffic control frequencies. This civilian aircraft was not equipped to pick up military frequencies and the messages on the civilian emergency channel could have been directed at any aircraft. More confusion arose as the hailed speed was the ground speed, while the pilot's instruments displayed airspeed, a 50-knot (93 km/h) difference.

This version was finalized in a report by Admiral William Fogarty, entitled Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Downing of Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988 (the "Fogarty report" Only parts of this report have been released (part I in 1988 and part II in 1993). The Fogarty report stated, "The data from USS Vincennes tapes, information from USS Sides and reliable intelligence information, corroborate the fact that [Iran Air Flight 655] was on a normal commercial air flight plan profile, in the assigned airway, squawking Mode III 6760, on a continuous ascent in altitude from take-off at Bandar Abbas to shoot-down".

The Fogarty report also stated, "Iran must share the responsibility for the tragedy by hazarding one of their civilian airliners by allowing it to fly a relatively low altitude air route in Close proximity to hostilities that had been ongoing".

When questioned in a 2000 BBC documentary, the U.S. government stated in a written answer that they believed the incident may have been caused by a simultaneous psychological condition amongst the eighteen bridge crew of Vincennes, called "scenario fulfillment", which is said to occur when persons are under pressure. In such a situation, the men will carry out a training scenario, believing it to be reality while ignoring sensory information that contradicts the scenario. In the case of this incident, the scenario was an attack by a lone military aircraft.

Iranian government account
According to the Iranian government, the shootdown was an intentionally performed and unlawful act. Even if there was a mistaken identification, which Iran never accepted, it argues that this constituted negligence and recklessness amounting to an international crime, not an accident.[32](4.524.54)

In particular, Iran expressed skepticism about claims of misidentification, noting that the cruiser's advanced Aegis radar correctly tracked the flight and its Mode III beacon; two other U.S. warships in the area, Sides and Montgomery, also identified the aircraft as civilian; and the flight was well within a recognized international air corridor. It also noted that the crew of Vincennes were trained to handle simultaneous attacks by hundreds of enemy aircraft.(4.50) Iran finds it more plausible that Vincennes "hankered for an opportunity to show its stuff".

According to Iran, the U.S. had previously issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning aircraft that they were at risk of "defensive measures" if they had not been cleared from a regional airport and if they came within 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) of a warship at an altitude of less than 2,000 feet (610 m). Flight 655 had been cleared from a regional airport and was well outside those limits when it was attacked. Even if the plane had truly been an Iranian F-14, Iran argued that the U.S. would not have had the right to shoot it down, as it was flying within Iranian airspace and did not follow a path that could be considered an attack profile, nor did it illuminate Vincennes with radar. Prior to the incident, Vincennes had entered Iranian territorial waters, and was inside these waters when it launched its missiles. Even had the crew of Flight 655 made mistakes, the U.S. government would still remain responsible for the actions of Vincennes' crew, under international law.

Iran pointed out that in the past "the United States has steadfastly condemned the shooting down of aircraft, whether civil or military, by the armed forces of another State" and cited El Al Flight 402, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 and Korean Air Lines Flight 007, among other incidents. Iran also noted that when Iraq attacked USS Stark, United States found Iraq fully responsible on the grounds that the Iraqi pilot "knew or should have known" that he was attacking a U.S. warship.

Independent sources

The captain of USS Vincennes, William C. Rogers III

In an article published in Newsweek magazine on 13 July 1992, John Barry and Roger Charles argued that Rogers behaved recklessly and without due care. However, the subsequent Fogarty report concluded that Rogers acted in a prudent manner based on the information available to him, and the short time frame involved. He also proceeded according to the prescribed rules of engagement for USN warship captains in that situation.

They also accused the U.S. government of a cover-up, but Admiral Crowe denied any knowledge. An analysis of the events by the International Strategic Studies Association described the deployment of an Aegis cruiser in the zone as irresponsible and felt that the value placed on Aegis cruisers by the U.S. Navy had played a major part in the setting of a low threshold for opening fire. Vincennes had been nicknamed "RoboCruiser" by crew members and other U.S. Navy ships, both in reference to its Aegis system, and to the supposed aggressive tendencies of its captain.

The International Court of Justice case relating to the attack, "the Aerial Incident of July 3, 1988, (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America)", was dropped on 22 February 1996 following settlement and reparations by the United States.

Three years after the incident, Admiral Crowe admitted on American television show Nightline that Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters when it launched the missiles.[22] This contradicted earlier navy statements. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report of December 1988 placed USS Vincennes well inside Iran's territorial waters.

U.S. Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, and CJCS Admiral William Crowe brief media representatives at the Pentagon about the shootdown on 19 August 1988.

Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of USS Sides, the warship stationed nearest to Vincennes at the time of the incident, is reported to have said that the destruction of the aircraft "marked the horrifying climax to Captain Rogers's aggressiveness, first seen four weeks ago". His comment referred to incidents on 2 June, when Rogers had sailed Vincennes too close to an Iranian frigate undertaking a lawful search of a bulk carrier, launched a helicopter within 23 miles (3.24.8 km) of a small Iranian craft despite rules of engagement requiring a four-mile (6.4 km) separation, and opened fire on small Iranian military boats. Of those incidents, Carlson commented, "Why do you want an Aegis cruiser out there shooting up boats? It wasn't a smart thing to do." He also said that Iranian forces he had encountered in the area a month prior to the incident were "pointedly non-threatening" and professional. At the time of Rogers's announcement to higher command that he was going to shoot down the plane, Carlson is reported to have been thunderstruck: "I said to folks around me, 'Why, what the hell is he doing?' I went through the drill again. F-14. He's climbing. By now this damn thing is at 7,000 feet." Carlson thought Vincennes might have more information, and was unaware that Rogers had been wrongly informed that the plane was diving. Carlson is also reported to have written in the U.S. Naval Proceedings that he had "wondered aloud in disbelief" on hearing of Vincennes' intentions, speculating that the ship, known as "RoboCruiser" for its aggressiveness, "felt a need to prove the viability of Aegis in the Persian Gulf, and that they hankered for the opportunity to show their stuff."

A slide presentation given by graduate students on M.I.T.'s Aeronautics & Astronautics course in Spring 2004, titled "USS Vincennes Incident", included a comment that Captain Rogers had "an undeniable and unequivocal tendency towards what I call 'picking a fight.'" On his own initiative, Rogers moved Vincennes 50 miles (80 km) northeast to join USS Montgomery. An angry Captain Richard McKenna, Chief of Surface Warfare for the Commander of the Joint Task Force, ordered Rogers back to Abu Musa, but a Vincennes helicopter pilot, Lt. Mark Collier, followed the Iranian speedboats as they retreated north, eventually taking some fire:

...the Vincennes jumps back into the fray. Heading towards the majority of the speedboats, he is unable to get a clear target. Also, the speedboats are now just slowly milling about in their own territorial waters. Despite clear information to the contrary, Rogers informs command that the gunboats are gathering speed and showing hostile intent and gains approval to fire upon them at 0939. Finally, in another fateful decision, he crosses the 12-nautical-mile (22 km) limit off the coast and enters illegally into Iranian waters.


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Reply 31 Years Ago Today; USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655 (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Jul 3 OP
hlthe2b Jul 3 #1

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Wed Jul 3, 2019, 07:12 AM

1. Yet it is always "THEY" who are the aggressors...

And this is what happens when we don't teach or remember history... Iran excepted our "apology" and ridiculous explanations. Does anyone really think the US would have reacted similarly and peaceably if the situation had been reversed?

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