Navy Missile Downs Iranian JetlinerBy George C. Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 1988; Page A01
A U.S. warship fighting gunboats in the Persian Gulf yesterday mistook an Iranian civilian jetliner for an attacking Iranian F14 fighter plane and blew it out of the hazy sky with a heat-seeking missile, the Pentagon announced. Iran said 290 persons were aboard the European-made A300 Airbus and that all had perished.
"The U.S. government deeply regrets this incident," Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference.
The disaster occurred at mid-morning over the Strait of Hormuz, when the airliner, Iran Air Flight 655, on what Iran described as a routine 140-mile flight from its coastal city of Bandar Abbas southwest to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, apparently strayed too close to two U.S. Navy warships that were engaged in a battle with Iranian gunboats.
The USS Vincennes, a cruiser equipped with the most sophisticated radar and electronic battle gear in the Navy's surface arsenal, tracked the oncoming plane electronically, warned it to keep away, and when it did not fired two Standard surface-to-air missiles.
Navy officials said the Vincennes' combat teams believed the airliner to be an Iranian F14 jet fighter. No visual contact was made with the aircraft until it was struck and blew up about six miles from the Vincennes; the plane's wreckage fell in Iranian territorial waters, Navy officials said.
Iranian vessels and helicopters searched for survivors, but there was no indication last night that anyone survived what apparently is the sixth worst aviation disaster. Iranian television broadcast scenes of bodies floating amid scattered debris.
It was the first time any U.S. military unit had shot down a civilian airliner. It occurred almost five years after a Soviet fighter pilot shot down an off-course Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing 269 people.
Iran accused the United States of a "barbaric massacre" and vowed to "avenge the blood of our martyrs."
President Reagan in a statement said he was "saddened to report" that the Vincennes "in a proper defensive action" had shot down the jetliner. "This is a terrible human tragedy. Our sympathy and condolences go out to the passengers, crew, and their families . . . . We deeply regret any loss of life."
Reagan, who was spending the Fourth of July holiday at Camp David, said the Iranian aircraft "was headed directly for the Vincennes" and had "failed to heed repeated warnings." The cruiser, he said, fired "to protect itself against possible attack."
News of the downing of the plane began with sharply conflicting accounts from Iran and from the Defense Department of what had transpired in the Persian Gulf. Early yesterday, Tehran broadcast accusations that the United States had downed an unarmed airliner.
The Pentagon at first denied the Iranian claims, declaring that information from the fleet indicated that the Vincennes, equipped with the Aegis electronic battle management system, had shot down an attacking Iranian F14 jet fighter. But after sifting through more detailed reports and electronic intelligence, Reagan directed the Pentagon to confirm there had been a tragic case of mistaken identity in the war-torn gulf.
Crowe, in his hastily called news conference at the Pentagon, also backed up the skipper of the Vincennes and faulted the Iranian airline pilot. Crowe said the Airbus had flown four miles west of the usual commercial airline route from Bandar Abbas to Dubai and that the pilot ignored repeated radioed warnings from the Vincennes to change course.
Why and how the Vincennes mistook the bulky, wide-bodied Airbus A300 for a sleek, supersonic F14 fighter plane barely a third the transport's size will be the subject of "a full investigation," Reagan promised. A military team under the command of Rear Adm. William N. Fogarty of the U.S. Central Command will leave this week to begin that investigation, Defense Department officials said.
The shootdown of the Airbus represents the biggest loss of life on the strategic waterway since the U.S. warships began escorting Kuwaiti tankers in and out of the Persian Gulf last July. Pentagon officials then said the increased U.S. naval presence would have from a "low to moderate risk" of provoking confrontations with Iran.
But in the past year, although the United States and Iran are not in a formal state of war, there have been a series of brief but fierce sea battles in the gulf between the two countries' military forces. Vigilance and readiness among U.S. forces intensified after the near-sinking of the patrol frigate USS Stark by an Iraqi fighter-bomber on May 17, 1987, in a missile attack that killed 37 sailors.
Yesterday started out as another sea battle, and ended with what the Vincennes commanders misinterpreted as a "Stark profile" attack on the high-tech cruiser. Crowe in his briefing and other Navy and Defense Department officials offered a detailed version of how the shoot-down occurred.
At 2:10 a.m. EDT, the Pentagon said, three Iranian Boghammar gunboats fired on a helicopter that had flown off the Vincennes on a reconnaissance mission. The helicopter flew back to the cruiser unscathed. The Vincennes and a smaller warship, the frigate USS Elmer Montgomery, a half-hour later closed on the gunboats and put them under fire with 5-inch guns, sinking two and damaging the third.
At 2:47 a.m. EDT, the Iranian Airbus with almost a full load of passengers took off from Bandar Abbas, a big Iranian naval base on the northern coastal elbow of the Strait of Hormuz. The field at the base is used by civilian and military aircraft and recently had become the center for Iran's dwindling force of F14s, a twin-engine, two-place fighter that the United States sold to Iran during the rule of the shah.
Two minutes after the Airbus took off, the far-reaching radars of the Vincennes Aegis cruiser saw the plane was coming its way. The skipper of the ship, operating under liberalized rules of engagement that call for U.S. captains in the Persian Gulf to fire before being fired upon to avoid another Stark disaster, warned the approaching aircraft to change course, according to the Pentagon.
The Vincennes and most airliners are equipped with identification of friend or foe (IFF) electronic boxes that query each other across the sky to establish identities. The Vincennes' IFF questioned the Airbus IFF via telemetry, but received no response. A response would come in radio pulses that would be deciphered and displayed as an identifying number on the ship's combat information center consoles.
Failing to raise the Airbus by IFF, the Pentagon said, the Vincennes broadcast its warnings by voice radio, using the emergency UHF and VHF channels that aircraft crews would hear if they followed standard practice of monitoring those frequencies. Crowe said three warnings were sent over the civilian emergency channel and four over the military one, called "Guard." The Pentagon said the Vincennes could have issued the warning over the air traffic control channel but did not.
"The suspect aircraft was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor," Crowe told reporters. Defense Department officials said later that the Airbus was four miles west of commercial air corridor. "More importantly," Crowe continued, "the aircraft headed directly for Vincennes on a constant bearing at high speed, approximately 450 knots."
Without becoming specific, Crowe said there were "electronic indications on Vincennes" that led the U.S. crew to conclude the approaching airliner was an F14. "Given the threatening flight profile and decreasing range, the aircraft was declared 'hostile' " at 2:51 a.m. EDT. The airliner at that crucial moment was on a course of almost due south, 185 degrees, and descending toward the Vincennes from an altitude of 7,800 feet, according to Crowe. Visibility was no more than five miles, Crowe said.
Three minutes later, at 2:54 a.m. EDT, the Vincennes launched two Standard surface-to-air missiles from its deck. The missiles whooshed toward the twin-jet airliner, which was nine miles away and not visible to the naked eye because of the haze hanging over the gulf. The Standard missiles homed in on the heat of the quarry's engines and at least one of them exploded when it pulled abreast of the Airbus. Such a missile hit usually slices an aircraft apart and turns it into a fireball of burning fuel.
"At least one hit at an approximate range of six miles," Crowe said. "We do have some eyewitness reports that saw the vague shape of the aircraft when the missile hit, and it looked like it disintegrated."
Asked if the Vincennes' skipper had been prudent or impetuous by firing at a plane he could not see, Crowe replied: "The commanding officer conducted himself with circumspection and, considering the information that was available to him, followed his authorities and acted with good judgment at a very trying period and under very trying circumstances . . . . Not only was he following this aircraft and concerned about it," but he also "was engaged on the surface with Iranian units."
Crowe said it was "logical" for the skipper to assume an aircraft that was coming down from the sky at high speed and would not respond to radio warnings was putting the Vincennes "in jeopardy."
At another point in the news conference Crowe broadened his defense of the Vincennes skipper, declaring "the No. 1 obligation of the commanding officer of a ship or units are the protection of his own people. We deeply regret the loss of life here, but that commanding officer had a very heavy obligation to protect his ships, his people. We've made that clear throughout the Persian Gulf mission . . . . "
Crowe, who used a chart of the Strait of Hormuz that displayed the approximate positions of the vessels and the route of the airliner, said he did not have enough data to explain fully why the multiple kinds of detection gear aboard the Vincennes mistook a wide-bodied jetliner for a fighter.
But he noted that the Vincennes' radar was focused on a plane coming at it head-on, reflecting a smaller dot on the console screens than would be the case from a side view. Also, he said, no Air Force Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) or Navy Hawkeye sentry planes were aloft over the Strait of Hormuz to provide additional identification data to the Vincennes at the time of the shootdown.
Navy leaders said Iranian commercial aircraft had flown over U.S. warships in a threatening manner at least eight times before the Stark was hit by two French Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi jet. Ever since the Stark attack, skippers in the gulf have been less tolerant of such apparent threats.
Asked if the skipper of the Vincennes would have held his fire under the interpretation of the rules of engagement followed before the Stark was attacked, Crowe replied: "I don't know. Certainly the rules of engagement would not have been as specific as the authorities granted him." He said another review of the rules of engagement would be part of the general investigation of the shootdown.
Crowe said there were "fundamental differences" between the actions of United States in this incident and the Soviet Union in the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which strayed into Soviet airspace on the night of Sept. 1, 1983, during a flight from Alaska to Japan. The Soviet airspace was not a war zone like the Persian Gulf, Crowe said, "and there was not combat in progress" as was the case yesterday. "It was at very high altitude" and no Soviet warnings were issued.
"In the Persian Gulf," Crowe said, there is very little time or maneuver room when ships are put at risk. "We're fighting in a lake."
Staff writer Molly Moore contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1996 The Associated Press