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Anatomy of an Accidental Shootdown

Three decades ago, a perfect storm of miscommunication, miscalculation, and human error in the heat of battle caused the United States to make a mistake similar to the one Iran just did.

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The Jan. 8 Iranian shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger flight shortly after takeoff from Tehran Airport was not the first time that U.S.-Iranian tensions had resulted in a major commercial airline tragedy. On July 3, 1988, William C. Rogers III, the commander of the USS Vincennes, ordered the downing of an Iranian passenger plane over the Strait of Hormuz, killing 290 people from six nations. He thought it was an F-14 fighter jet intent on attacking the U.S. naval vessel.

As part of our Document of the Week series, Foreign Policy is posting the U.S. military investigation into the accident, along with letters from top U.S. military brass defending the commander’s action as justified as a result of the fog of war. The documents—marked secret—were obtained by the Black Vault, a repository of declassified U.S. government documents founded by John E. Greenewald Jr. through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The downing of Iran Air Flight 655 occurred at the height of the 1980s war that pitted the revolutionary Islamic government of Iran against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Both sides repeatedly targeted their enemies’ shipping vessels. At the time, Iraq enjoyed the backing of the United States.

In the spring of 1987, the United States committed naval forces to escort American-flagged oil tankers through hostile waters in the Persian Gulf, where Iran had planted mines and targeted merchant vessels linked to Iraq and its backers. Iran considered the U.S. action hostile because it prevented the country from responding in kind to Iraqi attacks on Iranian oil ships.

Days before the attack on the Iranian airliner, Iraq carried out a series of air raids against Iranian oil facilities and tankers. U.S. forces in the region braced for a wave of anticipated retaliatory strikes. Tehran, meanwhile, deployed three F-14 fighter jets from an airfield in Bushehr to a joint military-civilian airport in Bandar Abbas, while Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dispatched a swarm of small armed boats to the Strait of Hormuz, where they mounted attacks on merchant vessels passing through the narrow strip of water that divides the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman.

A helicopter from the USS Vincennes, which was instructed to investigate, came under fire from one of the small Iranian gunboats. The crew of the USS Vincennes was still engaged in a gunfight when the Iran Air Airbus A300 lifted off from Bandar Abbas en route to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Seven minutes later, the aircraft was hit, killing everyone on board.

The United States acknowledged responsibility for the attack, but top U.S. military officials claimed that Iran bore substantial responsibility because it had not taken steps to prevent the commercial plane from traversing a war zone.

On the day of the attack, Marine Corps Gen. George B. Crist, the head of U.S. Central Command, ordered an investigation by Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty into what went wrong. The probe showed how a perfect storm of miscommunication, miscalculation, and human error in the heat of battle resulted in one of the deadliest commercial tragedies in modern times. There were several key pieces of information that convinced Rogers that his ship was facing an imminent attack. Around the time of takeoff, the commander’s staff picked up a signal that had been associated with Iran’s F-14 fighter jets. An Iranian P3 surveillance plane was spotted in the vicinity, raising fears that it was looking to identify targets. But the most decisive bit of intelligence came minutes before the shooting when an agitated crew member informed the captain that the plane was headed directly towards the USS Vincennes—and it was descending and accelerating.

The report, it turned out, was wrong. The ship’s own tracking system had recorded the plane was actually ascending and that the F-14 signal had not come from the doomed airplane. The plane, flying at an altitude of 13,500 feet, “was on a normal commercial air flight plan profile, in the assigned airway … on a continuous ascent in altitude from takeoff at Bandar Abbas to shoot down,” Fogarty’s report found.

There were mitigating factors, according to the U.S. military.

The Iranian military authorities did not inform the commercial tower in Bandar Abbas that hostilities were in progress on the plane’s route. While the Iranian aircraft was well within a 20-mile commercial air corridor, it had veered slightly off the corridor’s center line. Iran used the Bandar Abbas airfield to fly military transport planes and fighters, adding to the confusion. Several months earlier, Iran had launched a fighter jet in support of an attack on U.S. naval forces. Shortly before the attack, the U.S. military issued tougher rules of engagement to their commanders, granting them authority to fire on suspected enemy targets even if they had not themselves come under fire.

“Given the conditions existing on 3 July, Captain Rogers and his senior CIC [Combat Information Center] watch personnel acted reasonably,” William J. Crowe Jr., then-chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Aug. 18, 1988. “It is impossible in the heat of battle to double check every piece of data being reported. This is not to suggest that Vincennes personnel performed perfectly in this incident; they did not.” But he added: “As the investigation makes clear, to say there were errors made and lessons learned is not necessarily to suggest culpability.”

“Given the time available, the Commanding Officer could hardly meet his obligation to protect his ship and crew and also clear up all of the possible ambiguities,” he wrote.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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