The Complicated History of USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655
Most Americans could not tell you why USS Vincennes is one of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, warships of the missile age, but Iranians could. On July 3, 1988, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser fired two missiles at Iran Air Flight 655. There were no survivors.
That tragedy is the news again as the war of words between President Trump and Iran heat up in the aftermath of the drone strike that took out Qasem Soleimani. President Trump tweeted that the U.S. has 52 potential targets it could hit if Iran does not back down, one for each hostage that was taken in 1979. He idiotically added that some of those targets could be cultural in nature although it is almost certain that list-maker would include such targets and it’s just an example of Trump trying to be Mr. Tough Guy.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded:
The Iranian position on IR655 is that the U.S. intentionally shot down a civilian airliner and has never apologized for it. However, history is not as simple as a talking point.
The incident involving Vincennes and IR655 in is incredibly complicated. To best understand the events of that day one needs to be willing to engage such subjects as naval combat tactics, modern weapons systems, knowledge of the historical context, and concepts of human psychology.
If readers want a detailed report of the actions of that day and the aftermath, including U.S. government’s internal investigation, I would recommend Lee Allen Zatarain’s book Tanker War. But here is a simplified version that shows that Iran’s spin does not hold up to the facts.
First, before we get to the events of the day, it is not true that the U.S. has stubbornly refused to admit wrongdoing. In 1988, President Reagan sent Iran a letter expressing “deep regret” over the incident and in 1996 settled on a payment of $131.8 million that would be paid to the victims’ family members.
As for July 3, 1988, it is important to remember the historical context. The so-called Tanker War was the part of the Iran-Iraq War that was fought at sea with both sides targeting shipping as a way to try to break the stalemate that existed on land.
There had been many incidents. The one stood out most in the minds of the sailors on the Vincennes and any other U.S. ship engaged in Operation Ernest Will, the operational code name for American escort missions in the region, was when USS Stark was hit by two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi aircraft that killed 37 and wounded twenty-one.
Adding to the already high tensions of being in a war zone, the U.S. and Iran had less than three months earlier fought the largest surface battle since World War II after the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine.
The common explanation in the aftermath of IR655 was that the decision to fire on the aircraft was made under the stress of combat, which explains why the ship’s crew thought IR655 was an F-14 despite nearly all indicators being to the contrary. Human beings can sincerely believe something is happening to them, even when it is not. Think of the legend of the man freezing to death in an unplugged freezer.
Beyond the stress that comes with combat there are two additional areas that led to the immediate decision to launch the missiles. First, was that IR655 was delayed taking off from Bandar Abbas International Airport, which meant that it’s flight path did not conform with what the crew of Vincennes would have expected.
Flights are delayed all the time, however, so the more important thing to note is that Vincennes made repeated calls to IR655 on both military and civilian frequencies to alter course. Obviously a civilian aircraft was not monitoring military frequencies, but for whatever reason, IR655 was not monitoring civilian frequencies.
None of this means that Vincennes is exonerated. Far from it. Vincennes should never have been in position to fire the missiles. Again, two things stand out.
The first problem was in Vincennes’ was a new state-of-the art Aegis guided-missile cruiser meant for open sea warfare, not convoy duty in the Gulf.
Nevertheless, she was ordered to the Gulf for escort duty. Here we get to the ship’s commanding officer Will C. Rogers III. Rogers and his actions that day have come under withering criticism. Described by some contemporaries as a man as a glory seeker, he was well north of where he should have been when he gave that fateful order (In fact he was in Iranian territorial waters). The reason he was there was because he decided to seek out battle with some Iranian gunboats, in the name of defending his helicopter. This does not hold up to well in hindsight, because an American helicopter can fly away faster than an Iranian gunboat.
Another knock on Rogers was that investigations would also show that discipline on-board Vincennes was not up to par.
There where plenty of mistakes made that day by both sides that contributed to the shoot down. Why IR655 was not monitoring civilian frequencies and Rogers’ desire to seek out an unnecessary battle were the two biggest, but one thing is certain: the United States did not shoot down a civilian airliner simply because it could. That’s just simply Iranian propaganda.