U. S. Marine Corps
Mohsen Rezaian was piloting his fully loaded Iran Air Airbus
through 13,000 feet on a routine Sunday morning flight across the
Persian Gulf to Dubai, when a burst of shrapnel ripped off the left
wing and tore through the aft fuselage.
shall never know Captain Rezaian's last moment, but in that instant
before oblivion he may have looked in horror out his left window and
thought that the slab of flapping aluminum and severed hydraulic lines
where the wing had been was the result of some sort of structural
is doubtful that he ever saw the two fiercely burning points of light
streaking up at his airplane, the Standard missiles launched by the
cruiser USS VINCENNES
is also doubtful that Captain Rezaian ever heard the warning messages
broadcast by the VINCENNES,
or by the frigate USS SIDES (FFG-14), about 18 miles from the
cruiser. The two ships were broadcasting on military and
international air distress frequencies, and during the busy climb-out
phase of his flight, Captain Rezaian likely was monitoring the approach
control frequency at Bandar Abbas, where he took off seven minutes
before, and air traffic control at Tehran Center.
he had been monitoring the distress frequencies, the American-educated
Captain Rezaian, although fluent in English, might not have known that
the warning transmissions were intended for him. Indeed, as the
Navy's report to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
would later state, only one transmission made by the SIDES, just 40
seconds prior to the VINCENNES'
missile launch, was clear enough that it could not have mistaken as
being intended for another aircraft.
Captain Rezaian's Mode 111 transponder, the civilian equivalent of the
military's "identification friend or foe" (IFF) electronics, was
broadcasting the unique code of a commercial airliner.
at a speed of about six miles per minute, the Iranian pilot had no way
of knowing that moments earlier he had crossed the 20-mile point where
Captain Will Rogers, the skipper of the VINCENNES,
had announced to his crew and to other U.S. naval elements in the area,
that he would shoot if the Iranian aircraft did not alter course.
Captain Rezaian could not have guessed that by now his lumbering A-300 Airbus
had been evaluated in the VINCENNES
as a diving Iranian F-14--the spearhead of a "coordinated attack" from
the air from gunboats on the surface--and that Captain Rogers had given
him an unspoken momentary reprieve by waiting until the airliner was 11
miles from the VINCENNES
before he authorized firing the ship's SM-2 antiaircraft
torn aluminum and 290 bodies from the shattered airliner rained down on
the waters off Qeshm Island, the pieces fell into place for Captain
David Carlson, who as a commander then was skipper of the frigate
SIDES. This curious track number 4131, designated an Iranian F-14
by the VINCENNES,
simply had not behaved like a combat aircraft.
as Captain Carlson would learn minutes after the Airbus
plummeted into the water, the electronic specialists in the SIDES’
combat information center had correctly identified the aircraft's
commercial transponder code at virtually the same instant that the VINCENNES
fired her missiles.
Carlson recalled their exclamations: "He shot down COMAIR [a commercial
Captain Carlson, the shootdown marked the horrifying climax to Captain
Rogers' aggressiveness, first seen just four weeks before.
had arrived in Bahrain on 29 May and got underway for her first Persian
Gulf patrol on 1 June. On the second day of this patrol, the VINCENNES
was on the scene when an Iranian warship (the frigate Alborz) had
stopped a large bulk carrier (the Vevey) and had dispatched a boarding
party to search the merchantman for possible war material bound for
Iraq. Although it was within the Iranian skipper's rights to do
so under international law, this appeared to be the first
search-and-seizure of the Iran-Iraq War.
the SIDES was transiting out of the Persian Gulf to rendezvous with an
inbound merchant vessel for a routine escort mission.
Then-Commander Carlson had arrived on board the frigate by helicopter
only four days earlier to relieve Captain Robert Hattan. Both men
were in the SIDES' combat information center (CIC).
SIDES approached the scene, it appeared to Captain Hattan that the VINCENNES
was too close to the Iranian frigate. "Hattan didn't like the
picture. We were not at war with Iran, and Hattan understood the
need to de-escalate the situation whenever possible," Captain Carlson
would later relate.
the situation soon deteriorated when the VINCENNES
took tactical control of the SIDES.
Hattan recounted that "Rogers wanted me to fall astern of the Iranian
frigate by about 1,500 yards. I came up on the radio circuit and
protested the order from the VINCENNES.
I felt that falling in behind the Iranian [warship] would inflame the
Carlson added: "This event has to be put in its proper context.
Less than two months earlier, half the Iranian Navy was sunk during
operation Praying Mantis, and our government had been making strong
statements about America's determination to protect neutral
shipping. Now what does the Iranian skipper see? He's
conducting a legal board-and-search, and here's an Aegis cruiser all
over him. Next, an American frigate joins the action.
Incidental to all this, Hattan knew that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft
was scheduled to fly over the area, which the Iranian might well detect
on his air search radar. Hattan also knew that two other U.S.
warships were behind us leaving the Persian Gulf. The Iranian
captain would be seeing all sorts of inbound blips on his radar scopes,
and he was alone."
was not difficult for Hattan to envision the Iranian skipper's
apprehension that he was being set up. On top of that, let us say
that SIDES' position relative to the Iranian warship was not tactically
satisfying," Captain Carlson said.
increased. The Iranians, clearly skittish, fired warning shots at
a civilian helicopter flying overhead with an NBC crew on board.
was very concerned that Rogers was going to spook the Iranian skipper
into doing something stupid. He wanted out and recommended
de-escalation in no uncertain terms," Captain Carlson said.
higher headquarters at Bahrain, designated Joint Task Force Middle
East, agreed and detached the SIDES from the VINCENNES'
control and, in addition, ordered the cruiser to back off and simply
observe the Iranian warship's activities.
account stands in sharp contrast to the version in Captain Rogers'
Naval Institute book, Storm Center, where he paints himself as the soul
of caution. Captain Rogers described the incident as occurring
during his second patrol, on 14 June, when he was barely into his first
patrol. "Sensitive ground being broken; no one wanted to escalate
the problem," Captain Rogers wrote.
Carlson, who relieved Captain Hattan as commanding officer of the
SIDES, observes: "This confrontation happened on 2 June, and if anyone
should get credit for cooling off a hot situation, it's Captain
a telephone interview, Captain Rogers agreed that 14 June is in error
and 2 June will be used in subsequent editions of his book.
Captain Carlson, it is not just a minor clerical error. "Rogers
moved the June 2nd incident to the 14th and took credit for
de-escalating the situation. But if the story is told as it
actually happened, then Rogers comes across as a loose cannon on his
first patrol. A junior four-striper [Hattan] had to set him
straight and calm things down. The Alborz incident was the
beginning of all the concern about his ship," Captain Carlson
this incident was the genesis of the "Robocruiser" moniker hung on the VINCENNES
by the men on board the SIDES, it was not mentioned in the formal
investigation of the shootdown or in any of the subsequent testimony of
senior naval officers to the public. The implications of the
aggressiveness Captain Rogers displayed on his first Persian Gulf
patrol were glossed over.
the morning of 3 July, Captain Carlson and his men in the SIDES' combat
information center had a close-up view of the fateful train of events
leading up to the shootdown of the Airbus.
Unlike the USS ELMER MONTGOMERY (FF-1082), the third U.S. warship
involved in the events that day, the SIDES was equipped with the
Link-11 data link. This electronic system enabled the SIDES and VINCENNES
computers to exchange tactical information in real time. Although
they were 18 miles away, Captain Carlson and his watch officers had a
front-row picture of virtually the same information that Captain Rogers
saw on the large-screen displays in the VINCENNES.
after sunrise, the SIDES was on her way back through the Strait of
Hormuz to rendezvous with another merchantman scheduled for a U.S. Navy
escort through the narrow strait and into the northern Arabian
the radio, personnel on board the SIDES heard reports from the ELMER
MONTGOMERY of Iranian gunboats in the Strait of Hormuz and in the
vicinity of merchant shipping. "Montgomery reported sounds of
explosions. There was vague discussion of some action taking
place. Not much, but we were told by the surface staff [Commander
Destroyer Squadron (ComDesRon) 25 in Bahrain] to increase speed and
close the VINCENNES'
position as fast as possible."
Carlson recalled, "Within minutes we got told, in effect, 'Nah, that's
it, resume your normal speed.' Fifteen minutes passed, maybe half an
hour. Again, the word came down to the SIDES to crank up speed
and join the VINCENNES.
This order, too, was soon canceled."
going down in my CIC now, thinking, 'Gee, this is starting off as kind
of a fouled-up day, isn't it?' And then, lo and behold, the message
came over the radio from Captain Rogers to the staff [DESRON 25] that
his helicopter had been shot at," Captain Carlson said.
at around 0720, Captain Rogers had launched his helicopter with orders
to fly north and report on the Iranian gunboat activity.
acknowledging the information, according to Captain Carlson, was the
staff of the Commander, Joint Task Force Middle East, Rear Admiral
Anthony Less. Admiral Less's staff was on board the USS CORONADO
(AGF-11) at Bahrain. Captain Dick McKenna, commander of DESRON
25, and his staff were located on board the USS JOHN HANCOCK (DD-981),
at the Sitrah Anchorage in Bahrain.
smelled that something wasn't good here," Captain Carlson said (with
good reason). Under the rules of engagement in effect at the
time, the VINCENNES'
helicopter, piloted that morning by Lieutenant Mark Collier, should not
have been flying close enough to be threatened by the light weapons on
the Iranian small craft. If Lieutenant Collier was in danger, it
was because he was not following the rules: to approach no closer
than four miles.
a letter published last August, in the wake of a Newsweek magazine
cover story on the incident, Lieutenant Collier wrote that he was never
closer than four miles from the Iranian craft.
that letter is at variance with Lieutenant Collier's sworn testimony to
the investigators, in which he conceded that he had closed to within
two to three miles of the Iranian craft.
fact, when the investigating officer asked Lieutenant Collier, "You
were actually inside the CPA [closest point of approach] that you were
told not to go inside, is that correct?" Lieutenant Collier replied
the report that the VINCENNES'
helicopter had taken fire, Captain Carlson ordered his crew assigned to
small arms detail topside.
was in CIC, and I remember my tactical action officer, Lieutenant
Richard Thomas, saying, 'My God, the VINCENNES
has really cranked up the speed here.' You could see it, the long speed
line on the scope. 'Where the hell are they going?' I was
wondering," Captain Carlson said.
this question was posed in a telephone interview with Captain Rogers,
he replied, "I wanted to get him [my helicopter] back under my air
defense umbrella. That's why I was heading north."
rationale raises questions. The VINCENNES'
helicopter could dash away from danger at 90 knots, three times the
speed of the advancing mother ship and, in addition, Captain Rogers
already had control of the airspace his helicopter was occupying, some
19 miles distant given the extended range of his antiair warfare
fact, in the 3 August 1992 Navy Times Captain Rogers offered a
different explanation for his decision to press north. "Because
of the bad atmospherics, any time the helo was farther than 15 miles,
we lost contact," he said.
Carlson recounted that "Rogers then started asking for permission to
shoot at the boats. We already knew the helicopter was okay, and
if the boats were a threat, you didn't need permission to fire."
after what Captain Carlson described as a couple minutes of "dickering"
on the radio between Captain Rogers and the Joint Task Force staff in
Bahrain, the VINCENNES'
skipper was given permission to shoot.
executive officer [Lieutenant Commander Gary Erickson] and I were
standing together, we both went like this," Carlson said, pointing both
thumbs down. "It was a bad move. Why do you want an Aegis
cruiser out there shooting up boats? It wasn't the smart thing to
do. He was storming off with no plan and, like the Biblical
Goliath, he was coming in range of the shepherd boy," Captain Carlson
Carlson directed Erickson to go to the bridge and to sound general
quarters. "On the way out, Gary asked, 'What's your worst
concern?' And I remember saying I was afraid that we might have to
massacre some boats here," Captain Carlson said.
mean they were not a worthy adversary. Take a look at my ship,
with a chain gun, 50-caliber machine guns, a grenade launcher, and a
76-mm gun--all this against a guy out there in an open boat with a
20-mm. gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. You'd rather
he just went away," Captain Carlson said.
SIDES continued to track the VINCENNES
whose speed line indicated high speed. At 0920 the VINCENNES
joined with the ELMER MONTGOMERY and took the frigate under tactical
control. The two vessels pushed north, with the ELMER MONTGOMERY
maintaining station off the VINCENNES'
board the VINCENNES,
a team of Navy journalists recorded events as seen from the cruiser's
bridge on a video camera. On the videotape, the VINCENNES'
executive officer, Commander Richard Foster, informed the combat
information center, "We've got visual on a Boghammer," a reference to
the Swedish-built boats operated by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The camera zoomed in to an Iranian boat, which appeared dead in the
water and floating between the VINCENNES
and ELMER MONTGOMERY as they raced by.
two U.S. warships held fire. They were headed for bigger game,
the blips on the surface search radar indicating more Iranian boats in
the distance. According to the data later extracted from the VINCENNES'
computers, it appears to have been a stern chase situation, where the
Iranian boats were headed toward the safety of their territorial
shown by the VINCENNES'
videotape, the two American warships passed a second Iranian gunboat,
this one to starboard of the cruiser. The boat's crew can be seen
relaxing topside. Hardly threatening behavior and the Iranians
appeared not the least threatened by the passage of the U.S. Navy
at this moment, at 0939, Captain Rogers asked for permission to fire at
Iranian gunboats he described as closing the USS Montgomery and the VINCENNES.
the SIDES, Captain Carlson was mystified. As he recounted in my
interview with him: "Rogers' actions didn't make any sense on at
least two levels. First, if he was bent on retaliation [for the
shooting at his helicopter], why was Rogers waiting for a second
demonstration of hostile intent? He could have engaged the boats he was
pursuing at his convenience. Second, if the situation was so
threatening, why ask for permission to fire? Under the rules of
engagement, our commanders did not have to wait for the enemy to fire;
they were allowed to exercise a level of discretion."
he was asked about all this apparently unnecessary effort to obtain
permission to fire, and the time it might consume, Captain Rogers
offered a variety of reasons. To this writer, he stated, "It was
ingrained in our training to ask the boss." However, on an ABC
Nightline broadcast the evening of 1 July 1992, Captain Rogers related,
"Time is a demon here. If I [sic] have a long time to sort
things, you are going to take more time to look at this, and more time
to look at that. But when you don't have time, you basically take
what you have and ... at some point in time you have to make the
decision." Yet in an interview later that month, Captain Rogers told a
Navy Times reporter, "It's always a good idea, if you have the time, to
ask for permission."
about 0940, the VINCENNES
and ELMER MONTGOMERY crossed the 12-mile line into Iranian territorial
waters. There is no mention of this crossing in the unclassified
version of the official report of the investigation.
to the investigation report, at 0941 Captain Rogers was given
permission to open fire. Note, he was now inside Iranian
territorial waters and ready to engage boats that had not fired at
the data extracted from the VINCENNES'
Aegis combat system, the Iranian gunboats did not turn toward the
cruiser until 0942--after Captain Rogers had been given permission to
fire. Time 0942 is the vital piece of information that destroys
the myth that the VINCENNES
and ELMER MONTGOMERY were under direct attack by a swarm of
time the Iranian gunboats turned was duly recorded by the Aegis data
tapes, but it was not contained in the investigation report. Not
until four years later, when Admiral William J. Crowe, U.S.
Navy (Retired), the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, testified to
the House Armed Services Committee on 21 July 1992, did this
significant datum come to public light.
his recollection is correct, Admiral Crowe said, "We actually know that
they turned around toward VINCENNES
at time 42." But Admiral Crowe then diminished the significance of what
he just revealed by hastening to tell the congressmen, "I won't confuse
you with these times and so forth."
about 0943, the VINCENNES'
forward five-inch gun mount commenced to lob shells at the Iranian
the videotape recorded on VINCENNES'
bridge that day, the gunboats, seen as mere specks in the distance,
returned fire; they did not initiate the shooting. The Iranian
gunboats' light weapons were greatly outranged by the heavier ordnance
on the VINCENNES,
and the spent shells from the Iranians' weapons fell harmlessly as a
brief line of splashes in the water, hundreds of yards short of the VINCENNES,
and fully 45 seconds after the VINCENNES'
first rounds were fired.
0947, Captain Rezaian pushed the throttles on his Airbus
to take-off thrust and began rolling down the runway at Bandar
board the SIDES moments later, the tactical action officer (TAO)
informed Captain Carlson, "Captain, we have a contact. VINCENNES
designated this contact as an F-14 coming out of Bandar Abbas."
The contact was assigned track number 4131 by the SIDES, and through
Link-11 the VINCENNES,
following the same contact as track 4474, dropped that number and
adopted SIDES' track number.
Carlson recalled, "I was standing between my TAO and weapons control
officer. I asked, 'Do we have it?...’"
sir, we've got skin, it's a good contact." was the reply,
indicating that electronic energy transmitted by the SIDES' air search
radar was bouncing off the plane.
glanced at it," said Captain Carlson. "It was around 3,000 feet,
350 knots. Nothing remarkable, so I said to the ESM [electronic
support measures] talker, any ESM [emissions]?"
sir. She's cold nose. Nothin' on her."
are we talking to him?"
we've gone out over the IAD [International Air Distress] and MAD
[Military Air Distress], and so has VINCENNES.
We are trying every net with this guy, and so far we have no response,"
was the reply.
light him up," Captain Carlson ordered. He explained that it was
standard practice to illuminate Iranian military aircraft with missile
fire control radar as a warning for them to turn around.
you put that radar on them, they went home. They were not interested in
any missiles," Captain Carlson recalled.
this contact didn't move. I looked at the console again.
More altitude. More speed. Got any ESM?" Captain Carlson
he's still not talking?"
sir, we're getting nothing out of him."
evaluated track 4131 verbally as not a threat. My TAO gave me a
quizzical look, and I explained. 'He's climbing. He's
slow. I don't see any radar emissions. He's in the middle
of our missile envelope, and there is no precedent for any kind of an
attack by an F-14 against surface ships. So, non-threat,'"
Captain Carlson recalled.
Captain Carlson and his tactical action officer were evaluating an
Iranian P-3's activities on the radar scope, they overheard Captain
Rogers' transmission, announcing to higher headquarters his intention
to shoot down track 4131 at 20 miles.
Carlson was thunderstruck: "I said to the 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 about
7,000 feet. Then, I said in my mind, maybe I'm not looking at
this right. You know, he's got this Aegis cruiser. He's got
an intelligence team aboard. He must know something I don't
the picture was different. Captain Carlson knew that from Captain
Rogers' perspective the presumed F-14 would pass almost directly
overhead. What he did not know was that the watchstanders might
also have been telling Captain Rogers the contact was diving.
saw it as a threat because he supposedly was being told it was
diving. As I was going through the drill again in my mind, trying
to figure out why I was wrong, he shot it down," Captain Carlson
I found out that my guys back in the comer had evaluated the IFF
[identification friend or foe] and had determined that it was a
commercial aircraft. They were horrified."
this is where I take some responsibility for this mess. If I had
been smarter, if I had said it doesn't smell like an F-14, and pushed
for a re-evaluation, and if my guys had come forward, saying that's an
IFF squawk for a haj [Islamic pilgrim] flight, I might have been
stimulated to go back to Rogers and say, 'It looks like you've got
I didn't do it, and the investigators walked away from that," Captain
his book, Captain Rogers said that at 0953, just before the authorized
missile firing, he again requested verification of the IFF code being
broadcast by track 4131 as that of an Iranian military aircraft.
"This was reaffirmed," he wrote.
information on the transponder emissions is unambiguous, however.
According to Admiral Fogarty's report of investigation, "The data from
tapes, information from USS SIDES and reliable intelligence information
corroborate the fact that TN 4131 was on a normal commercial air flight
plan profile ... squawking Mode 111 6760, on a continuous ascent
in altitude from take-off at Bandar Abbas to shoot down."
number in the 6700-series indicated it was a commercial aircraft.
Captain Rogers and Captain Carlson had this information.
told the investigators that I believed there was sufficient
information, had it been processed properly, to have stopped this thing
from happening. And that point is never addressed in their
report." Captain Carlson said. And Captain Carlson has a theory
about this curious avoidance.
do they walk away? Because if you want to hang Dave Carlson, you've got
to hang Will Rogers, then the question is going to be why was he doing
this shit in the first place? That means you've got to pull the
rope and hang Admiral Less for giving him permission," Captain Carlson
worse than that, you would then have to go back in front of the
American people and say, 'Excuse me, folks, but the explanation you
just got from Admiral Crowe, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, saying
that this was a justifiable action, and that the VINCENNES
was defending herself from an attack, cannot be supported by the
facts," Captain Carlson said.
this, of course, would have come out if information available within
days of the tragedy had been made public.
U.S. Navy's reluctance to face weeks of scandalous media attention was
matched by what we might surmise as a certain political hesitancy
against full disclosure. The VINCENNES
affair occurred four months away from the 1988 Presidential
election. Then Vice President George Bush had gone before the
United Nations on 14 July and declared, "One thing is clear, and that
is that USS VINCENNES
acted in self-defense.... It occurred in the midst of a naval
attack initiated by Iranian vessels against a neutral vessel and
subsequently against the VINCENNES
when she came to the aid of the innocent ship in distress."
it came to pass, none of this was true.
the truth of the matter would have given the Democratic candidate for
President, Michael Dukakis, ammunition to embarrass George Bush.
were good reasons for spinning the story in a way that put the Iranians
in the worst possible light.
a court martial might have raised many ugly questions about crew
training, and more questions about why Admiral Less, with one of the
most important and sensitive commands in the world, was not equipped
with Link 11 for real-time access to vital tactical information.
Add, too, questions about command selection. And ultimately, full
disclosure would have led to bedrock questions about professional
ethics. For example, what is the obligation of a serving officer
like Captain Carlson, an eyewitness to an event, to speak up when the
facts as he sees them cast doubt on the "official" story? Indeed,
what is the obligation of higher authority to own up to a mistake?
an incomplete investigation was blessed. Captain Rogers was left
in command of the VINCENNES
and, in fact, he and key officers were rewarded with medals for their
conduct. As an added fillip, all hands aboard the VINCENNES
and the ELMER MONTGOMERY received combat action ribbons.
investigation left gaping holes in at least four elements. They
could be labeled the four T's--of time, tactics, truth, and
Fogarty's investigative report and the approving endorsements dwelt at
great length on the confusion and pressure of events in the five
minutes preceding Captain Rogers' order to launch missiles at the Airbus,
but none of the senior leaders commented on the actions that created
the time pressure. Captain Rogers had been cruising at top speed
for fully 30 minutes into the fray. If he had proceeded more
slowly, Captain Rogers could have purchased more time to sort out the
tactical situation on the surface, and perhaps to resolve a second
ambiguous track (110 miles away but descending) which he wrote later in
his book was a factor in his decision to shoot.
weren't leaning on our toes trying to create a problem," Captain Rogers
told this writer. However, the course and speed records for his
own ship suggest otherwise.
all accounts Captain Rogers' Aegis cruiser was dispatched hurriedly to
the Persian Gulf to counter the threat of Iranian Silkworm antiship
missiles. With its 1,100 pound warhead, a 23-foot Silkworm
launched from the beach would have severely crippled or sunk any ship
it hit. Aegis was the shield.
of positioning his ship to best deal with the Silkworm threat, and to
manage the air picture, Captain Rogers stormed into littoral
waters. Moreover, he was allowed to hazard this prime asset by
higher authority. Admiral Fogarty's report does not question
these key matters of tactical judgement, although they are relevant to
the employment of Aegis-capable ships in future coastal
Fogarty's investigation accepts the testimony of console operators in
combat information center who said the supposed F-14 was diving.
However, one officer, Lieutenant William Montford, who was standing
right behind Captain Rogers and testified that he never saw indications
that the aircraft was descending. At about 0951, Montford warned
Captain Rogers that the contact was "possible COMAIR."
Aegis data tapes agree with his view. Beyond doubt, the console
operators' electronic displays showed the aircraft ascending
throughout. Admiral Fogarty chalked up the disparity in the
statements of the majority to "scenario fulfillment" caused by "an
unconscious attempt to make available evidence fit a preconceived
scenario." He offered no opinion regarding the veracity of the
console operator's statements.
Fogarty's report also noted that the Iran Air Airbus
took off to the southwest, although at least four people in the VINCENNES'
CIC testified that it took off in the other direction, toward the
northeast--another major contradiction that is left unresolved.
Rogers' recollections also contain inconsistencies. Case in
point: his disclosure on the mysterious track 4474. Recall
that the Iranian Airbus
was briefly designated as 4474 by the VINCENNES.
Rogers claimed that a Navy A-6 flying more than 150 miles away was
entered into the Naval Tactical Data System by the destroyer Spruance
(DD-963) on patrol outside the Persian Gulf, using the same track
to Captain Roger's explanation, this track was passed that morning to
HMS MANCHESTER, and through automatic exchange of data among shipboard
computers the track appeared on the VINCENNES
display screens at just about the same time the supposed Iranian F-14
(now track 4131) was 20 miles from the VINCENNES.
re-appearance of track 4474, Captain Rogers claimed, added to the
perception of an in-bound threat and contributed to his decision to
Captain Rogers wrote in Storm Center, and Admiral Fogarty's report
confirms, that he decided before it was 20 miles away to shoot down the
inbound Iranian aircraft. If track 4474 did not reappear on the
screen until it was 20 miles away, then by definition track 4474 could
not have been a factor in pushing Captain Rogers to make his initial
decision to shoot.
the engagement, the Navy camcorder crew boarded one of the VINCENNES'
launches to assess damage to the cruiser. The close-up views of
the starboard side of the hull, where Captain Rogers told Admiral
Fogarty's investigators shrapnel or spent bullets had struck the ship,
there are dents and scrapes. Most look like the normal wear and
tear that would result from the hull rubbing against objects
pierside. There are shallow craters in the steel, but at the
deepest point, where one would expect that the strike of a bullet would
leave bare metal, the paint is in pristine condition.
shell craters. Mere dents. It appears that Admiral Fogarty
displayed little interest in confirming Captain Rogers' damage report
for himself. After all, the VINCENNES
was tied up at Bahrain during the inquiry.
videotape shows more, such as the navigator on the bridge announcing to
the officer of the deck that the VINCENNES
was crossing the 12-mile line demarcating Iran's territorial waters en
route to the open waters of the Persian Gulf after the
totality of information now available suggests that Captain Rogers
"defended" his ship into Iranian territorial waters, and when the air
contact appeared, he blew the call.
has happened since?
Rogers retired in August 1991, and to this day insists "At no time were
we in Iranian territorial waters." "I think it's a problem of
semantics," he said in a 2 July 1992 appearance on the "Larry King
Show" to publicize his book.
it spin control. Call it denial psychosis. Call it what you
will, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report of
December 1988, clearly placed the VINCENNES
well inside Iran's territorial waters.
David Carlson has written and spoken out publicly criticizing Captain
Rogers' account of the tragedy.
Rogers has got the whole force of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of the
United States Navy supporting him," Captain Carlson said.
will be silent as soon as someone else in the Navy stands up for what
really occurred," Captain Carlson declared.
Captain Carlson has not received a scintilla of support from the top
echelon, he has received numerous letters from fellow officers.
Some are rather illuminating, such as this extract:
came in contact with Capt. Rogers while he was enrolled in the
Commander's Tactical Training Course at Tactical Training Group,
Pacific. At the time, I was the Operations Evaluation Group
Representative to the staff. As such, I
assisted...instructors...in the training war games...Capt. Rogers was a
difficult student. He wasn't interested in the expertise of the
instructors and had the disconcerting habit of violating the Rules of
Engagement in the war games. I was horrified, but not surprised,
to learn VINCENNES
had mistakenly shot down an airliner." he wrote.
top military officer involved in the VINCENNES
affair was Admiral William J. Crowe, the Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs. His five-page endorsement of Admiral Fogarty's
investigation put the rap on Iran for allowing its airliner "to fly
directly into the midst of a gunfight."
Crowe's accusation begs the question: How could the pilot, or the
air traffic controllers at Bandar Abbas, possibly have known of the
surface engagement under way?
the Newsweek magazine cover story on the VINCENNES
affair appeared last July, headlined "Sea of Lies," Admiral Crowe, now
retired, was called to testify before the House Armed Services
Committee. Again, he placed much of the blame on the
Iranians. Admiral Crowe also trashed the Newsweek story for its
"slim evidence" and "patently false charges of a cover-up."
if not a "sea of lies," the official story is hardly a river of
truth. The full body of evidence is anything but slim. It
includes Admiral Fogarty's investigation, the separate report to ICAO,
ships' logs, dozens of interviews, and the 38-minute video recorded by
the Navy camcorder crew, just to itemize some of the evidence.
Crowe conceded in his 21 July 1992 appearance before the House Armed
Services Committee that the Aegis tapes pulled from the VINCENNES
definitely showed her crossing into Iranian territorial waters, and the
time was known to the second.
Crowe declared that under the right of innocent passage the VINCENNES
had de facto clearance to enter Iranian waters. Innocent passage?
Captain Rogers wasn't passing anywhere. And if not innocent
passage, then did he have the right under hot pursuit to pass through
the 12-mile line? He was not already engaged. He was not
under imminent threat. Indeed, according to the annotated
supplement to the Commander's Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations,
for hot pursuit to apply the initiating event must occur in the
pursuing state's territorial waters. Neither of Admiral Crowe's
the pursuit appears to have started at about 0916, when the Iranian
boats were at least seven nautical miles away. Visibility was
four nautical miles, at best. Sitting low in the water, looking
into the haze, the boat's crews would likely have not even been aware
initially of the haze-grey cruiser bearing down on them.
Larry Hopkins (R, KY), questioning Admiral Crowe, asked, "Do you find
any fault...with what Captain Rogers did under the circumstances?"
Crowe answered that he did not find "mal-performance of a criminal
subtlety of this point apparently slipped by Representative Hopkins and
his colleagues, but Admiral Crowe's remark should raise eyebrows among
naval professionals. What he said, in effect, was that Captain
Rogers can not be held accountable because he was not criminally
negligent. Yet under military law a commander can be held
accountable for a non-criminal act--a major difference from civil
retired Army colonel who attended the hearing was surprised and
disappointed by Admiral Crowe's testimony.
part of a four-page commentary on this hearing, he wrote: "Graduate
seminars of my day would mine the admiral's words to prove our Navy is
too dangerous to deploy..."
see a sole winner in the Navy's present struggle. It is not the
nation, but the Air Force's contractors. I shudder, not at paying
for the hardware that will come, but for the piper who waits near the
door," this colonel concluded glumly.
this remark came from an officer who knows how vital the Navy's role in
littoral waters will be in coming years. Indeed, the latest
maritime strategy document, issued 1 October and titled "...From the
Sea," redirects the Navy's Cold War focus on open-ocean combat with a
now-nonexistent Soviet fleet to "littoral or 'near land' areas of the
affair is more relevant than ever as a vivid example of the kind of
military-political gymnastics in which the Navy may be engaged in
coming years. It is important for the Naval Service and for all
Americans to look at the events that July day five years ago
objectively, and to learn, especially since Iran continues to be
demonized as a threat to stability in the region.
facts are still in dispute. The full text of Admiral Fogarty's
investigation merits declassification, and especially the geographic
track files of the vessels and air contacts involved. Indeed, the
secrecy still surrounding the Airbus
shootdown only serves to conceal ethical and operational weaknesses
Captain Will Rogers,
U. S. Navy (Retired)
one involved, certainly including me, denies or shrinks from the
responsibility for the tragic destruction of Iran Air Flight 655, but
there are no hidden agendas or explosive facts awaiting
to the downing of Flight 655, many issues have been put forth that are
not based on fact. The genesis of these range from simple
misunderstanding to deliberate presentation of misinformation.
Since in the main they have been and continue to be presented in a
sensational fashion, the themes tend to cloud accurate perception of
what is most certainly a complex matrix of events. These issues
and their counterpoints are offered to lend first-hand perspective to
The Navy has failed to take advantage of the lessons learned from the VINCENNES
To date, thousands of hours have been expended in analyzing every facet
of the events of 3 July 1988. Tactical, operational, and human
factors, plus equipment and training issues have been examined and
numerous changes and modifications have been implemented.
Pertinent lessons-learned files have been incorporated into the Navy
Lessons Learned Data Base (NLLDB), and the actual VINCENNES
war diary tapes have been incorporated into the Aegis Training Center
prospective commanding and executive officer team-training
curriculum. The results of much of this effort were incorporated
into procedures employed during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and the
The Department of Defense and the Navy should declassify the report of
the Board of Investigation in its entirety.
This drumbeat is normally couched so as to leave the impression that
the classifying authorities have some sinister and/or conspiratorial
rationale for maintaining the report under a classified umbrella.
Not so. Portions of the report address capabilities, sensitive
procedures, and intelligence information which, for the foreseeable
future, must remain classified and accessible only to those with need
to know. These restrictions, I might add, apply even to the
parties to the investigation. There is simply no hidden
"blockbuster" information. To the contrary, the convening and
classifying authorities moved quickly to provide public access to the
basic report and findings.
The crewmembers of the VINCENNES
were less than fully prepared for their mission.
Statements of this ilk are not supported by fact. The states of
training and readiness of the ship were the subject of a thorough
review during the course of the formal investigation, and both domains
were found to be at the highest levels. These findings were
supported by in-depth documentation obtained from Commanders Third
Fleet, Seventh Fleet, and Naval Surface Forces Pacific, as well as
sworn testimony of the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet and Commander
Middle East Force representatives to the investigative board, and are a
matter of public record.
was overly aggressive and charged into the situation hoping to prove
herself...the aircraft was not a threat, etc.
In the main, the genesis of this theme emanates from Captain David
Carlson, the former commanding officer of USS SIDES (FFG-14) [Editor's
Note: See D. R. Carlson, pp. 87-92. September 1989 Proceedings]
whose clarity of hindsight concerning the events in which he was only
indirectly involved appears to have improved with the passage of
time. The facts are:
was provided an opportunity in a legally constituted forum to voice his
view and provide information supportive of his subsequent public
comments. He did not do this.
testimony presented during the course of the hearings support his
in fact his grasp of the developing tactical situation was as complete
as he has indicated, then he must assume responsibility for failing to
pass this insight to his officer in tactical command (ie., the VINCENNES's
The rules of engagement (ROES) were murky and contributed to a
To the contrary, the ROEs were and are succinct and clear in both
intent and latitude. They provide useful guidance and a framework
for measured response in the ambiguous atmosphere of low-intensity
conflict. Following missile attack on the USS Stark (FFG-31), the
ROEs were modified to underscore the responsibility of the on-scene
commander to exercise the inherent right of self-defense in a timely
appropriate question should be: Are the ROEs weighted to protect
American lives and property?
In violation of international law, the VINCENNES
and the Montgomery entered Iranian waters.
The presence of the VINCENNES
and/or the Montgomery in Iranian territorial waters during the course
of the engagement did not constitute a violation of international
law. When the determination of hostile intent on the part of the
Iranian small craft was made, both U.S. ships were in international
waters. During the course of the following surface action while
maneuvering at high speed both the VINCENNES
and the Montgomery exercised their right of self-defense pursuant to
international law reflected in Article 51 of the U.N. charter and
entered Iranian waters. Under the law of self-defense, warships
and military aircraft may enter foreign territory whenever military
exigencies dictate. Navigational positioning data pertinent to
the entire engagement track were automatically recorded on the war
diary tapes and provided to both the investigative board and
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) representatives.
Readers interested in a broader examination of this--as well as other
issues related to the events of 3 July 1988--may wish to obtain a copy
of the 18 September 1992 Naval War College Memorandum, subject, "USS VINCENNES
(CG-49) and the shoot-down of Iranian Airbus
Flt 655" prepared for the Center for Naval Warfare Studies by Professor
R. J. Grunawalt.
The Iran Air pilot could not have heard the radioed warnings; his radio
bands were full of air control information.
Annex 10 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, to which
Iran is a party, provides that commercial aircraft "shall continuously
guard the VHF emergency frequency 121.5 MHZ in areas or over routes
where the possibility of interception of aircraft or other hazardous
situations exist, and a requirement has been established by the
appropriate authority." The International Civil Aviation Organization
confirmed that the Strait of Hormuz in 1988 was such an area and that a
Notice to Aviators Class I warning had been promulgated in September
1987 advising that "failure to respond to warnings could place aircraft
at risk by U.S. defensive measures. ICAO confirmed that
"since 16 September 1986, Iran Air flight crews operating in the Gulf
area...required to monitor frequency 121.5 MHZ...at all times."
The crew of the VINCENNES
reported the aircraft as descending when in fact it was climbing.
The probable root cause of this important discrepancy required
extensive analysis by large numbers of people before a satisfactory
explanation was determined and agreed upon. The results of this
effort reveal that the problem lay neither with the Aegis system nor
directly with the console operators but rather within the Navy Tactical
Data System Link 11 network and the assignment of track numbers (TNs)
to the contact.
lift off, the Airbus
was assigned TN 4474 by the VINCENNES
from her assigned track block. Shortly thereafter TN 4131 was
assigned to the same contact by the SIDES. The Aegis system,
recognizing that the two track numbers applied to the same contact,
dropped the number assigned by the VINCENNES
(TN 4474) and adopted the number assigned by the SIDES (TN 4131).
The investigative report documents that this save track number feature
was an automatic function of the Aegis system and notes that TN 4474
was also available for assignment by U.S. and allied warships operating
in the North Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. The investigation
and subsequent analysis established that TN 4474 was hooked by a
watchstander in the VINCENNES
after 4131 became the identifier for the Airbus.
Should one or more watchstanders--operating in a time- compressed
situation and unaware of the track number switch--have interrogated the
system for contact parameter information, the system would have
responded with current data on TN 4474. This number now was
assigned by a unit in the Gulf of Oman to an accelerating and
descending aircraft of a surface combat air patrol (SUCAP) operating
from the carrier USS Forrestal (CV-59) package. In fact, such a
system query did occur when the Airbus
was approximately 20 nautical miles from the VINCENNES.
greatly simplified causal analysis has been included in the Aegis
Training Center incident- training syllabus. A thorough treatment
of this particular event chain is contained in a masters thesis
submitted to the Naval Postgraduate School by Captain K. A. Dotterway,
U. S. Air Force, titled "Systematic Analysis of Complex Dynamic
Systems: The Case of the USS VINCENNES."
In the case of the VINCENNES,
the Navy abrogated the ethical standards inherent to the traditions of
command at sea.
The principals in the incident were party to a complete, thorough and
formal investigation which contained in its convening precept a
statement to the effect that should testimony or findings so warrant,
the investigation would be halted and proceedings under Article 32 of
the Uniform Code of Military Justice initiated. During the course
of the formal investigation all details of the events in question were
completely examined. Time lines and decision streams down to
1/1,000 of a second were subjected to intense scrutiny. The
president of the investigative board was empowered to obtain any
information he saw fit and use any subject matter expertise
available. Both options were widely employed. The findings
of the board were reviewed by both the Navy and the convening authority
chains and included Commander-in-Chief, Central Command, the Chief of
Naval Operations, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the
Secretary of Defense.
results of the investigation were briefed to the Armed Services
Committees of the House and Senate and provided by the Office of the
Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs to the media for
publication. Throughout, all parties, which certainly included
the commanding officer, were held fully and completely accountable, as
they should have been.
are other published flights of ill-informed fancy. Perhaps the
most bizarre alleges that the VINCENNES,
other forces operating in the Gulf, and higher Department of Defense
authorities were parties to a secret conspiracy to force conflict with
Iranian forces. This particular misrepresentation is compounded
by claims that the true events of 3 July 1988 were "covered up" and
"whitewashed" to preclude the revelation of a "secret war."