USS Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After misidentifying Iran Air Flight 655 as an inbound attacking F14 aircraft, the USS Vincennes launched two missiles at the airliner. The first missile struck the target and broke the aircraft in pieces, resulting in the deaths of 290 civilians, 66 of whom were children. Although the United States never officially acknowledged wrongdoing, it agreed to pay Iran millions of dollars in compensation.

Summary of Event

The USS Vincennes was a Ticonderoga-class, Aegis-equipped guided-missile cruiser whose design mission was to defend the U.S. fleet from multiple air and surface attacks. The Aegis fire control system could track and engage two hundred simultaneous threats. Its design allowed the crew to monitor an automatic system and provide override should a problem occur. Vincennes (ship) Iran Air Flight 655 Airliners, attacks [kw]USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane (July 3, 1988) [kw]Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane, USS (July 3, 1988) [kw]Iranian Civilian Plane, USS Vincennes Shoots Down (July 3, 1988) [kw]Civilian Plane, USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian (July 3, 1988) [kw]Plane, USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian (July 3, 1988) Vincennes (ship) Iran Air Flight 655 Airliners, attacks [g]Middle East;July 3, 1988: USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane[06880] [g]Iran;July 3, 1988: USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane[06880] [c]Military history;July 3, 1988: USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane[06880] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 3, 1988: USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Civilian Plane[06880] Rogers, William C., III Bush, George H. W. Reagan, Ronald Rezaian, Mohsen Anderson, Andrew Guillory, Victor G. Less, Anthony A. Zocher, Clay Lustig, Scott Foster, Richard Crowe, William J.

On April 14, 1988, while operating as part of Operation Earnest Will, Operation Earnest Will the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a mine in the Persian Gulf. The operation involved the U.S. Navy’s protection of Kuwaiti and European shipping from intimidating, but usually nonhostile, actions by both Iraqi and Iranian gunboats. The Navy decided to have the ship carried back to the United States aboard a heavy-lift ship. It was also decided that an Aegis guided-missile cruiser should be deployed to cover the egress of the Roberts from the Persian Gulf. The USS Vincennes got the assignment, and in May of 1988 the cruiser entered the Persian Gulf to take up its duties.

A key to understanding the incident of July 3, 1988, rests with understanding the attitude of the captain of the Vincennes, William C. Rogers III. Under his command, the Vincennes had earned a reputation within the Navy as an overly aggressive ship eager to enter combat. Rogers believed in forceful tactics and was known to push the limits of the “rules of combat” during military exercises and fleet maneuvers.

On the morning of July 3, the Navy spotted thirteen Iranian gunboats in the Strait of Hormuz. This was not an unusual activity for the Iranians, and Admiral Anthony A. Less, commander of the Joint Task Force-Middle East, ordered the Vincennes north to monitor the activity by using its helicopter, Ocean Lord 25. The helicopter was launched at 7:22 a.m. and within twenty minutes spotted the gunboats circling a German cargo vessel, the Dhaulagiri. The gunboats were engaged in a common tactic of harassment, but they did not fire at the Dhaulagiri. Captain Rogers ordered the Vincennes crew to “general quarters” (battle stations) and sent the ship northward toward the gunboats at a speed of 30 knots (34.6 miles per hour). Rogers was eager to get at the gunboats even though the Vincennes had never been designed to engage small craft and his orders had not authorized him to pursue such a course of action.

Crew members monitor radar screens in the combat information center aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes in January, 1988, six months before the cruiser accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf.

(Department of Defense/Tim Masterson)

The Vincennes soon invaded Iranian territorial waters, much to the chagrin of the naval commanders who, by 8:48 a.m., were ordering the Vincennes southward. Rogers claimed that the Ocean Lord 25 had received gunfire from the gunboats. In fact, it had, but the helicopter had acted in a hostile manner within Iranian territorial waters. The Vincennes engaged the gunboats with its two five-inch guns.

The situation aboard the Vincennes was confusing and difficult for its crew. Many of the personnel were not as proficient with the Aegis system as they should have been. In fact, the surface tactical warfare officer, Lieutenant Commander Victor G. Guillory, was so unfamiliar with Aegis that he used Post-it notes on the radar screen instead of using the system. Also, the lights in the combat information center (CIC) were flashing on and off as the ships’ guns fired at the gunboats. The Vincennes was also roughly handled, turning at high speeds as Rogers tried to keep his guns on the small gunboats.

At 9:46 a.m., Iran Air Flight 655, under the command of Captain Mohsen Rezaian, took off from Bandar Abbas Airport on its scheduled flight to Dubai. Although it was a known air route, Rezaian’s flight path would take him nearly directly over the Vincennes, which continued to fight within Iranian territorial waters. At 9:47 a.m., the Aegis system picked up a plane taking off from Bandar Abbas and in accordance with standard procedures tentatively identified the plane as a possible threat, as that airport served both civilian and military roles.

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Petty Officer Andrew Anderson monitored the new target and used the identification friend or foe (IFF) system to try to positively identify the target. The IFF reported the target as a commercial airliner, but Anderson missed Flight 655 on the commercial schedules, possibly because of confusion over the four time zones in use in the operational area and because of the poor lighting in the CIC. The Vincennes radioed warnings to Flight 655 but addressed them to “unidentified aircraft.” Flight 655 did not respond, probably because, as a commercial airliner on a regularly scheduled flight, Rezaian assumed the airliner was identified. The Vincennes also failed to ask for a positive identification of the target by any of the USS Forrestal’s F14 fighters, which were orbiting in the area, a step that probably would have prevented the incident.

At 9:50 a.m., an unidentified person in the CIC identified Flight 655 as a possible “Astro” (code name for an F14), and the operators soon identified the incoming flight as an F14. The Iranians owned F14s purchased during Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime; however, the fighter jets were not equipped as bombers and so posed a minimal threat to the Vincennes. At 9:54 a.m., the Vincennes fired two SM-2 surface-to-air missiles at the commercial airliner. Moments later, the first missile struck, killing 290 civilians on board.

Within a day, government leaders in Washington were working to influence news media coverage of the incident. Admiral William J. Crowe made an initial announcement that there had been a terrible accident but stressed that Flight 655 was flying outside of the commercial air corridor and was descending toward the Vincennes. Both statements were false. Vice President George H. W. Bush was assigned to give a speech to help cover the incident. He stressed that the Vincennes fired in defense of merchant ships that had been under attack, another untruth. The cover-up fell apart when a lawsuit in international courts forced the U.S. government to admit that the Vincennes was operating in Iranian territorial waters, although the United States continued to maintain that the Vincennes was acting in self-defense.

Significance

In 1996, the United States paid compensation for the Iranians killed in the incident. The government paid $68.1 million for the loss of life but refused to pay for the cost of the airplane ($30 million). The amount was paid upon the agreement by Iran to drop the lawsuit in court concerning the incident.

Captain Rogers retired in 1991, after teaching in San Diego, California, for the Navy following his change of command. Several crew members of the Vincennes were decorated for their actions under fire in the incident, even though some of them were so poorly trained for their jobs that multiple errors occurred. The Vincennes continued its naval career for another seventeen years before it was decommissioned on June 29, 2005, in San Diego, and then mothballed in Bremerton, Washington. Vincennes (ship) Iran Air Flight 655 Airliners, attacks

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barry, John. “Sea of Lies.” Newsweek, July 13, 1992. Exposes the blunders that led to the tragic incident and the cover-up by the U.S. government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, Will, and Sharon Rogers. Storm Center: The USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655—A Personal Account of Tragedy and Terrorism. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992. Account of the incident by the captain of the Vincennes and his wife.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spector, Ronald H. At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century. New York: Viking Press, 2001. Comprehensive history of naval tactics and technology.

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