Why did the Navy shoot down 290 civilians? A naval officer who served in the Persian Gulf explains what really went wrong - and why it may happen again.
The first time anyone in the operating area of the Vincennes took an interest in scheduled airline traffic was one minute after the detection of Iran Air flight 655 on radar and six minutes before it was shot down. That vital information wasn't posted in grease-pencil on any of the Combat Information Center's many status boards nor logged just a buttonpush away in its computers. Instead, a crew member had to resort to riffling desperately through the hundreds of pages of fine-print in the Official Airline Guide. Although flight 655 was in fact listed in the guide as a regularly scheduled flight, with such a lack of research it's not surprising that nobody could find it. Even the ticket agents at airline counters keep flight schedules stored in computers. It's incredible that the Navy, with much more at stake than the timeliness of the Eastern Shuttle, should be so ill-prepared.
With the loss of 290 civilians, the Vincennes tragedy offers an illustration of how the Navy's readiness problems stem from human, rather than mechanical, deficiencies. After all, the failure to take account of airline traffic didn't arise from a malfunctioning radar, radio, or computer. There's been a lot written-much of it gushing-about the Navy that suggests otherwise. (A line from the cover story, "Tough New Navy," in the August 4, 1986, issue of US. News & World Report is typical: "Bristling with high-tech gear and missiles, the fleet is easily the most muscular America has ever put to sea.") But no matter how many wonder weapons come on the scene, the chain of command will always go through people. And a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Without proper planning and training, a multimillion dollar, antiair warfare system, like the Aegis radar, is no more reliable than a nervous index finger groping through an unread book.
The Defense Department flirted with this truth in its report on the shootdown. That 5 3-page document stated tha"stress, task fixation, and unconscious distortion of data may have played a major role [in the event]." But ultimately, the Pentagon missed the point. "Singly, the errors or mistakes were not crucial to the fateful decision," stated Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. "Even cumulatively, they do not appear to change the picture in a decisive way."
This sort of PR-speak keeps the military from learning from its mistakes. Contrary to what Admiral Crowe said, the Vincennes episode suggests that the Navy still hasn't adequately developed and channeled the crucial human qualities of knowledge, judgment, and decision-making skills.
Fly 'til you drop
During the past 20 years-from say, the Israeli assault on the Liberty in 1967 right through to last year's attack on the Stark, and now the Vincennes tragedy-the Navy's technical superiority has often been stymied by poor thinking. During my own experience in the Navy from 1978 to 1983, 1 repeatedly found defects in the Navy's planning and preparation, defects that were individually exasperating and, collectively, indicate that the mental confusion on the Vincennes was especially severe but not uncommon. These are the sorts of "software" problems that get overlooked because they have to do with values, role models, and psychology-topics neither contemporary military men nor strategic thinkers have much time for.
Promotion boards seem to overlook them, preferring instead to emphasize one easy-to-use criterion-raw time on the job. In the aviation world in which I served, this simplistic approach to advancement is mightily reinforced, what with all the flight jacket patches and wall plaques honoring pilots for getting a "thousand hours" (of night time) and making "centurion" (achieving 100 carrier landings). Spend enough time in enough ready rooms and you could forget that there'SS anything to being a naval aviator besides "cats" (carrier launches) and "traps" (carrier landings). You could forget that the point of the job is to do some very tricky stuff in-between.
A clear example of this came when I was stationed on a carrier and my airwing was preparing a longrange airstrike against faraway practice targets. Most of the wing's aircrews were crammed into the ship's intelligence center to attend the final briefing before manning up their planes. At the head of the room was the airwing commander-"CAG" in naval parlance-who clearly considered himself to be The Right Stuff personified. As usual, his overriding concern seemed to be maintaining his lead as the man in navy history with the most carrier landings. After rushing through what was supposed to be a briefing on the ultimate carrier mission in less time than it takes just to give a weather brief, CAG was finished. He was almost out the door when the question came: "What about hung ordnance, CAG?" The question concerned what to do about bombs that wouldn't come off airplanes like they're supposed to. Navy airstrike plans are supposed to include measures for dealing with such dangling destruction, because it's obviously hazardous to bring such goodies back to the carrier for a landing. But sometimes the fly-boys just . . . er. . .sort of forget to mess with details like that. Before this very sensible question was raised, no one else apparently had noticed that the topic had been completely overlooked. But CAG confronted the questioner without the slightest pause for thought. "Hung ordnance? There will be no hung ordnance on this mission," he barked, his cigar tightly clenched between his teeth. "If you have a hung bomb, climb to altitude, and fly 'til you run out of gas."
The unannounced kind
The atmosphere on the Vincennes and even the Defense Department's own report on the episode evince a disdain for planning. Perhaps this is why the
following mental lapses were overlooked by the Pentagon:
The commercial air traffic problem was taken lightly. The Middle East and Near East may be desert, but the area is packed with commercial airliners darting between Dubai, Riyadh, and other Arab cities. Besides a full complement of intraregional flights, there are numerous daily flights connecting Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia to Europe and Asia. There are 18 commercial air routes covering at least 50 percent of the navigable waters of the Persian Gulf alone. And this is nothing new. During my carrier service in the Northern Arabian Sea in the early 1980s, my crew mates and I spent much of our time tracking and intercepting commercial airliners. There's no reason why the computers on navy ships going into the Gulf aren't stocked with all available commercial flight information-and in readily accessible form. After arriving on station, crews of the Vincennes and other ships with advanced radar suites should have compared their airtrack logs with available scheduling information to determine if there were big gaps between scheduled and actual flight activity.
If such gaps did emerge they should have been brought to the attention of the Gulf commander and higher authorities so that intelligence sources could analyze them and diplomatic channels could notify Iranian civil air authorities. But no such research was done, and this could have been crucial, since the Iran Air flight was 25 minutes late. The indifference to the commercial air problem cannot be blamed solely on the Vincennes's Captain Rogers. According to the Defense Department report, upon the Vincennes's arrival in the gulf in May, when Rogers was briefed by the area commander, Admiral Anthony Less, there was no mention of specific air routes or commercial airline schedules. Nor were these schedules plotted on Admiral Less's flagship. The first time that Less provided commercial airline flight information-including an accurate and concise description of flight 655-to his ships was June 28, five days before the shootdown. (The Defense Department offers no explanation of why this important information was not used.) That the Navy was so dismally prepared for assessing scheduled aircraft does not speak well for its ability to handle the unannounced kind.
As the problem unfolded, the Navy &d not make optimal use of communications. The Vincennes did place nine radio calls to Iran Air flight 655 on international distress frequencies, but there were other options that might have made the difference. The report notes that due to their heavy workloads, commercial cockpit crews generally don't monitor distress frequencies during take-off and ascent to cruise altitude. Therefore, after failing to reach the aircraft, it would have been advisable for the Navy to contact the Bandar Abbas airfield or the Tehran control center which were likely to be communicating with the pilot. But no such calls were attempted by the Vincennes, or by any of the other ships directly involved, or by the area commander. No one planned for this contingency. It might have taken a few minutes to try, but it would have been worth it. The Defense Department blames this lapse on "the limited number of VHF radios on U.S. surface units," which "degrades their ability to simultaneously monitor the [distress] frequency and communicate with civilian air traffic control agencies." Even waiving the question of why our trilliondollar defense buildup has left us with a limited number of VHF radios, if the distress frequencies were unavailing, it would still have made sense to momentarily switch at least one radio on at least one ship to the Bandar Abbas airfield or Tehran control center. And why be restricted to radio communications? During the entire episode, the force commander's flagship was tied to the pier in Bahrain. Why couldn't somebody there have made a phone call or sent a telex?
The air cover we need
It is foolish to position surface ships in such a sensitive area without air cover What Captain Rogers needed more than anything else was someone to see what he was up against. Given time and distance constraints, that relief could have come only via a pilot's visual identification (navy F-14s carry television sighting equipment that make visual ID's possible at considerable ranges). But at the time, there were no aircraft positioned to answer such a call. There were no land-based fighters within range, and, at the time, the closest U.S. carrier, the Forrestal, was not operating in support of the Vincennes, Nor were there any airborne Saudi or air force AWACS or navy E-2 planes available to help clarify the Vincennes's radar data. In the case of the AWACS this is especially alarming, considering that one of the main arguments for selling the planes to Saudi Arabia in the first place was that they would be there to help U.S. interests. Because radar data tends to be equivocal-in a wide variety of circumstances, a blip is a blip is a blip-the great range and track capacity of the Aegis radar system on cruisers like the Vincennes exacerbates rather than diminishes uncertainty. Therefore Aegis ships require more, not less, air support than less-sophisticated vessels.
This wouldn't be the first time that the Navy has made less than optimal use of its planes, The Stark, too, was without air support. Additionally, in the U.S. military there's an unacceptable amount of bureaucracy involved in putting planes where they should be. In 1982, while I was serving on the carrier Ranger, our airwing was augmented by a detachment from the Guam-based reconnaissance squadron, VQ-1. The presence of such VQ "dets" has long caused difficulties on deployments. For one thing, the squadron flew the EA-3 Douglas Skywarrior, the largest and oldest plane regularly operating off carriers. The "Electric Whale" 's immensity drives the flight deck people nuts, and its age-it's from the early 1950s--scares everybody shitless. The mission of the VQ aircraft is to carry out electronic surveillance for national authorities.(The squadron motto is: "In God we trust, all else we monitor.'") This means that while these planes operate off of and work with carriers, they report to national, non-military entities like the National Security Agency. As a result, like the other naval aircraft with primarily command, control, communications, and intelligence applications, the EA-3 is usually resented by the "tactical" aviators-the airwing commanders, the carrier commanding officers, and the battle group admirals-who have dayto-day control over them, as something that neither drops bombs nor fires missiles and just gets in the way. The upshot is that, although VQ work is vitally important, it is often woefully underappreciated and underused by fleet commanders.
While the Ranger was working in the Indian Ocean, VQ-1 was supposed to be on board to electronically fingerprint and monitor the burgeoning Soviet naval presence there. Yet it was repeatedly turned down when it requested permission to fly missions over Soviet anchorages in the Arabian Sea such as Suquatra, a chain of islands that is often the resting place for as many as ten Soviet units at one time. Although these proposed missions would have produced valuable intelligence about Soviet fleet radars, communications tactics, call-signs, et al.-precisely the kind of military fine-print that the fleet needs in order to avoid making mistakes like the Stark or the Vincennes affairs-the indifference of the aviators running the Ranger's fleet command kept them from ever taking place. The main consequence of this was that our V"work" primarily consisted of launching the EA-3 for meaningless hops away from the rest of the airwing. The real purpose of these flights was simply to get the mammoth plane off the deck, which facilitated the positioning of the other planes for the next launch. So, out on the Ranger at that time-with both the Soviet fighting in Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq war going at full bore-certain crucial intelligence missions were simply not being done.
Iron bombs and Mavericks
In reacting to what it took to be an Iranian F-14, the Vincennes crew &splayed inadequate knowledge of a US. -made threat aircraft. Captain Rogers and the crew of the Vincennes thought they were aiming at an American-made plane, yet from what we know about what happened on board, the crew displayed remarkably little understanding of how the F-14 works.
Some important facts: The F-14 is a fighter/interceptor designed to shoot down fighters and cruise missiles. Each of its principal weapons-the longran e radar-guided Phoenix missile, the mid-range radar-guided Sparrow missile, and the short-range infrared-guided Sidewinder missile-has only antiair capabilities. In other words, it is not a bomber and the odds of one of its Sparrow missiles successfully looking down into the electronic clutter produced by any body of water and locking onto a surface target are as low as the odds of a torpedo hitting a low-flying plane. In addition, nobody on board the Vincennes seems to have noticed that or wondered why the ship's radar-detecting equipment didn't spot any sweeps of the unique F-14 radar coming from the blip.
The F-14's only standard antisurface weapon is its Vulcan cannon, whose effective range is, at best, several thousand yards. And if-as has never been observed-an Iranian F-14 had been equipped with iron bombs, the Defense Department admits that the Vincennes was forewarned well before the 655 incident that any F-14 so outfitted would have to close to within two miles of its target to drop them. So even on the assumption that the Vincennes was dealing with an F-14, it's not clear why the decision was made to shoot at something ten miles away and two miles high.
Against this, the Pentagon's report raises the possibility that the Iranian F-14s had been modified to carry sophisticated antiship weapons, mentioning that last February, Iranian F-4s fired antisurface Maverick missiles at a Liberian tanker near where the Vincennes was on the fateful day. But the report gives no examples of Iranian F-14s operating with Mavericks. And what is much more important, there is absolutely no evidence that anyone on the Vincennes gave any thought to what kinds of weapons the incoming blip represented. During the incident, there was never any mention of Mavericks or any other antiship system. The biggest clue to how little consideration was given to this question is that when the Vincennes fired its missiles, it was already three miles inside the blip's Maverick range.
Throughout the Iran Air calamity, only the commanding officer of the frigate Sides was thinking clearly enough about F-14s. Based on the F-14's lack of antisurface weaponry, the total absence of correlating F-14 radar reception, and the lack of precedent, he concluded that the approaching unknown aircraft was a "non-threat." The nub of the tragedy is that he was the only person involved who was considering all types of information in making an assessment.
The Navy doesn't adequately prepare its shipboard personnel for the psychological environment of combat. The 655 report describes how the widespread yelling and shouting on the Vincennes and its hard-truning gun battle probably clouded crew members' judgments. It's disanning to note that die psychological consequences of naval combat took experienced navy investigators somewhat by surprise. But their recommendation of studying crew stress levels is a good start. And here's a stronger suggestion I hope the Navy's higher-ups will take to heart: for goodness' sake, don't just study combat stress-replicate it in training. Fear and urgency have always been staples in basic training and in elite units, but regrettably they rarely have been significant elements in the weapons and tactical training most sailors receive (see "Hurts So Good," Scott Shuger, May 1988).
The 655 investigation report states that the ',Aegis combat system's performance was excellent." In light of the results, that is like saying, "The operation was a success, but the patient died." Who cares if a bunch of antennas, tape heads, and TV screens are working? If 655 proved anything, it proved that although technical efficiency may be necessary for combat success, it will never be sufficient. The crucial additional components required will always be human qualities-knowledge, foresight, inventiveness, and resolve. Indeed, because "excellent" hardware like the Aegis radar inflicts unprecedented amounts of equivocal information on its users, people in the Navy need these qualities to an unprecedented degree.
Despite the focus on hardware shared by hawks and doves, the Navy's chances for success in combat really depend above all else on the mental skills of its crews and especially its commanders. Somehow missing from current defense debates is the obvious fact that a 600-ship Navy with only 200 high-quality skippers is just a 200-ship Navy with three times the problems.
Almost everything about the 655 shootdown is an indication of the catastrophic extent to which the Navy downplays thinking-as was the Pentagon's decision to break with naval tradition by not holding Captain Rogers accountable. In summing things up, Admiral Crowe said of Rogers, "Given what was in his mind at the time, there was no other prudent or responsible course." But what's clear now is that he should have had more in his mind.
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|Title Annotation:||Iran Air flight 655|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1988|
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