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Mourners carry coffins through the streets of Tehran, July 7, 1988, during a mass funeral for victims who died in the Iran Air Flight 655 crash in the Persian Gulf.

On This Day: US Navy Shoots Down Iran Air Passenger Flight

July 03, 2011 05:00 AM
by John Noonan
On July 3, 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes mistook a commercial jet for a hostile Iranian F-14 fighter plane, shooting it down and killing 290 people.

USS Vincennes Fires on Iran Air Flight 655

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Iran Air Flight 655 took off from Bander Abbas Airport in southern Iran at 10:17 a.m., set for the 150-mile, 28-minute flight to Dubai, according to the Iran Chamber Society.

Previously stationed in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war, the USS Vincennes was in the Straight of Hormuz, a body of water that the aircraft would have to pass over on its route. The USS Vincennes was sailing in Iranian waters, along with the USS Sides and USS Elmer Montgomery, and had just been in the midst of combat with Iranian vessels.

The inexperienced crewmembers believed the aircraft’s flight pattern and speed matched that of an Iranian fighter descending at high speed toward the ship. The Navy said it attempted to contact Iran Flight 655 numerous times on civilian radio frequencies, never receiving a response. The Vincennes fired, killing all 290 people on board the plane.

Citing recent attacks, the U.S. government made it clear that there was an eminent threat of attack on the U.S. Navy. According to the Navy, only after other alternatives were exhausted did the Vincennes crew justifiably act in self-defense to what it perceived to be a threat during a time of war.

According to a letter written to Congress by President Ronald Reagan on July 4, the Vincennes was “firing in self-defense at what it believed to be a hostile Iranian military aircraft.”

Background: Iran-Iraq War and the attack on the USS Stark

The attack on Flight 655 occurred during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. The war broke out over both nations' claims to the oil-rich area along their shared border. The exact number of casualties is unclear but it is estimated that 1 to 2 million people died as a result of the conflict, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

U.S. Navy vessels were stationed in international waters in the Persian Gulf in order to prevent Iran from destroying Kuwaiti and Saudi oil vessels. Iran had attacked dozens of these ships.

Approximately a year prior to the Vincennes incident, in 1987, a rogue Iraqi Mirage F-1 fighter launched two Exocet missiles at the USS Stark, killing more than 30 sailors. The attack was unprovoked and the Stark, not expecting it, did not take defensive measures. The Stark was struck by the first of two missiles as it attempted to contact the Iraqi fighter via radio to issue a warning.

Opinion & Analysis: Was the U.S. Provoking Iran?

According to a subsequent review, particularly of the Aegis system, "a complex network of radar and computers" onboard the USS Vincennes, "blame fell not on the machines but on the men who were operating them," Time magazine reported.

Some observers said memories of the slow American response to an Iraqi air attack on the USS Stark a year earlier, as well as the wartime environment of the Iran-Iraq war, may have induced panic in the crew. But Iran believed that the attack was deliberate, and many journalists suspected a U.S cover-up, speculating that the Navy, anxious for wartime action, had been overly aggressive, reported Newsweek.

Days after the incident Gary Sick wrote in The New York Times, “The evidence suggests that our aggressive patrolling strategy tends to start fights, not end them. We behave at times as if our objective was to goad Iran into a war with us, when our real objective is to get Iran and Iraq to stop fighting.”

Later Developments: U.S. Pays Compensation

Just over a week after the incident, the United States agreed to pay compensation to victims' families on an “ex gratia” basis, meaning that it did not admit fault or accept liability. A White House spokesman remarked that the fault lied with “those who refuse to end the conflict.”

Related Topic: Aegis Missile System

According to the U.S. Navy, "The Aegis system was designed as a total weapon system, from detection to kill. The heart of the system is the AN/SPY-1, an advanced, automatic detect and track, multi-function phased-array radar."
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