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A Logical Choice in the Persian Gulf : Firing on Airbus Was in Error, but Was Not an Illogical Act

<i> Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. </i>

Was Capt. Will C. Rogers III of the U.S. warship Vincennes acting rationally when he shot down an approaching aircraft that turned out to be an Iranian commercial jetliner packed with 290 civilians?

A lot has been written about that July 3 tragedy, but much of it has not really been relevant. Now, with the official report completed and much more information available, including the electronic tapes that record what went on inside the ship’s command center that day, it is possible to make a more informed judgment.

There are three issues that have gotten close attention in the media, all relating to factual errors attributed to the Vincennes’ officers and crew--the plane was falsely reported, first, to be out of the civilian air corridor, second, to be “squawking” a military code, and third, to be descending as if in an attack profile. What are the facts?

First, was the plane in a civilian air corridor? The answer is yes. But so what? The implication of the debate over the air corridor is that an aircraft flying within it would be civilian and therefore should not be shot down. But Iranian--and other military aircraft--often fly in civilian air corridors. Any plane can use an air corridor. An aircraft’s presence there tells you nothing. Furthermore, the captain did not report that the plane was outside the 20-mile-wide air corridor. He said his experience told him that Iran Air’s pilots hewed precisely to the middle of the corridor, while the plane he was observing was more than three miles off the midline.

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Second, was the plane’s transponder “squawking” a Mode II signal, which is used only by military planes, or a Mode III signal, which both military and civilian aircraft use? A member of the crew reported reading a four-digit Mode II squawk previously associated with Iranian F-14 fighter jets. Crewmen began talking on the internal communications system about an approaching “F-14.” But the computer tapes from the ship show the radar system was picking up nothing but a Mode III signal.

Therefore, it would appear that the crew error led the captain to make a grievous error. But it wouldn’t necessarily have made any difference to the captain if he had known there was only a Mode III signal. On April 18, the Iranians sent several fighters to the site of a sea battle with U.S. forces. And all those Iranian planes turned off their transponders. The Iranian air force may not get high marks for brilliance, but it isn’t so dumb as to fly an attack mission broadcasting a signal that says, “Hey, here I am, an enemy plane.”

The same is true of the third issue: Was the plane descending or ascending? One crewman was convinced that the plane was descending, as if preparing an attack. But this crewman did not begin shouting out erroneous altitude readings until after the captain made his decision to fire and had radioed his superior. Furthermore, it isn’t terribly relevant if a plane is ascending or descending when it’s a dozen miles away.

These issues--air corridor, transponder squawk and altitude--have been the most discussed in the media because of the controversy over the facts. But just because they were frequently discussed after the shoot-down doesn’t mean they were central to the captain’s decision before the shoot-down.

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Why did the captain decide to shoot? It is impossible to get inside a person’s head. We do have the text of the investigative interview with him after the shoot-down--but the skipper then enjoyed (or suffered) the benefit of days of rethinking the tragedy. But between the interview and the circumstances of the day, we can piece together many of the factors that undoubtedly went through his head.

We all now know that what Capt. Rogers did was in error. The tragedy is that, through the weight of the evidence, a decision to shoot was logical:

--The plane was flying directly at the Vincennes. The skipper could see his ship at the middle of the radar screen with the blip representing the Airbus moving inexorably closer and closer on a direct bearing for the Vincennes. Within two minutes (from the moment of firing), the ship and aircraft blips would have converged.

--A dozen radio warnings were transmitted to the approaching plane. None were acknowledged. At the moment the plane had been taking off from the civilian-military airport at Bandar Abbas, the Vincennes had radioed another Iranian plane, an air force P-3 that was 15 miles farther away. The pilot of that plane had responded orally, identifying himself and indicating he had no intention of approaching the Vincennes. Why did one pilot respond and not the other?

--The mystery plane took off from Bandar Abbas four minutes after the Vincennes began firing at Iranian gunboats that a half-hour earlier had fired on an American naval helicopter. In the April 18 encounter, Iran had launched several fighter planes from the same airport--planes that joined the ongoing sea battle.

--Intelligence reports had warned the Vincennes to be on the lookout for a possible Iranian surprise over the July 4 weekend. Intelligence also said that F-14s had only recently been stationed at the Bandar Abbas airport. And intelligence had reported other, still-classified, information about Iranian military plans and capabilities that could match up with the mystery plane’s approach.

--Rogers used the equipment aboard his ship that can detect and identify the radar emissions coming from aircraft. This gear can determine that the kind of radar signal being sent out is that used by an F-4 Phantom, a French Mirage fighter or a Boeing 727. The captain was told the mystery plane was not operating any radar at all. Commercial aircraft would normally--though not necessarily--be operating their weather radars. An F-14 would normally be operating its tracking radar, looking for its target. But F-14s can and do fly with their radars shut down--and the P-3 that was warned by radio earlier could be operating as a guide for the mystery plane, telling it how and where to find the Vincennes.

--Thirteen months earlier the crew aboard the U.S. warship Stark had waited--and paid the price. The orders given to all skippers entering the Persian Gulf made clear that there should be no repeat: “WE DO NOT WANT TO ABSORB THE FIRST SHOT!!!!!!!” the briefing papers say (with the capital letters and seven exclamation points in the original document).

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The decision-making parameters the Navy gave the skipper were clear. Any plane approaching from the Iranian land mass is assumed to be a potential threat until proven otherwise. Most planes flying from Iran over the Persian Gulf are “proven otherwise” because they do not fly straight at American vessels or, they change course when warned. Before the Airbus shoot-down, the last time Iranian planes had headed straight for American warships was during the middle of the April 18 sea battle.

The captain had about as much time to reason through all this as it takes to read this article. Only seven minutes transpired from takeoff to shoot-down. At the same time, the Vincennes was engaged in a sea battle, returning fire from a cluster of Iranian gunboats. And two minutes before firing his missiles at the plane, the gun being fired at the gunboats jammed, forcing the captain into a high speed turn so that another gun could be brought to bear on the Iranians.

Given all this information, the decision to shoot down the approaching plane does not appear illogical. Incorrect, yes. But illogical, no.


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