Lethal errors and fatal flaws

JOHN BIERMAN July 18 1988

Lethal errors and fatal flaws

JOHN BIERMAN July 18 1988

Lethal errors and fatal flaws


In the streets of Tehran last Thursday, a vast crowd chanted “Death to America” —and this time it was a good deal more than mere ritual. Four days before, a U.S. warship had shot down an Iran Air jetliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people aboard. And there was a chilling fervor to the chants —and to the accompanying cries of “revenge, revenge” —as at least 10,000 Tehranis bore the rough wooden coffins of 72 of the victims to their burial places.

In Washington, there were signs of both remorse and confusion over the incident. President Ronald Reagan sent an apology to the Iranian government, and officials discussed compensation for the victims’ families.

At the same time, polling indicated that most Americans were sympathetic toward Capt. Will C.

Rogers, commander of the cruiser Vincennes, which shot down the Airbus as a suspected attack plane in the aftermath of a brush with Iranian patrol boats. Still, vital questions about his decision to open fire remained unanswered.

As a U.S. navy investigation team conducted a detailed inquiry in the Gulf to attempt to answer those questions, both the United Nations Security Council and the governing council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) scheduled emergency meetings for this week. Those sessions were convened in response to Iranian demands for an independent international investigation of the disaster,

which Tehran angrily claimed was an act of deliberate murder. Meanwhile, domestic critics of Washington’s Gulf policy cited it as the underlying cause of the disaster. Said retired admiral Gene La Rocque, director of Washington’s nongovernment Centre for Defence Information: “It became inevitable when American military ships began operating in that area under a poorly thought-out policy.”

The incident also revived doubts

about the effectiveness and reliability of America’s high-tech weaponry. Those doubts focused on Aegis, the Vincennes’s computerized radar and weapons system (page 26). Said Republican congressman Denny Smith, a longtime critic of Aegis: “This system was advertised as the shield of the fleet, but the shield has a lot of holes in it.”

Among the key questions to which the six-man U.S. navy investigation team, under Admiral William Fogarty, will seek answers:

• Did the Airbus, as claimed by

the Vincennes, give off conflicting electronic signals, one set identifying it as a civilian aircraft, the other as a military plane?

• Could the signals that led the Vincennes’s crew to believe that the plane was an Iranian air force F-14 have been emitted by a warplane flying in the shadow of the Airbus—or even by an F14 on the ground at the Bandar Abbas airport from which the Airbus took off?

• Was the Airbus, as the Vincennes claimed, descending from an altitude of 9,000 feet— giving an impression that it was attacking— when the order to fire was given?

Analysts also raised questions about the behavior of the Iranians, including:

• Why did the authorities at Bandar Abbas allow the Airbus to take off when they must have known that a naval engagement between U.S. warships and Iranian attack craft was in progress right under its flight path?

• Why did the Airbus fail to respond to repeated radio warnings from the Vincennes and another U.S. warship?

Fogarty was given 15 days to complete his inquiry. The 33-member governing council of ICAO was expected to initiate an independent—and likely a lengthier—inquiry during their emergency meeting at the UN agency’s Montreal headquarters. Observers speculated that the ICAO governors might also discuss concerns over the general impact of U.S. naval activity in the Gulf on civilian air traffic. Terry Denny, spokesman for the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association told Maclean's last week that he believes there have been complaints about U.S. warships interfering with commercial air traffic in the Gulf but was unable to confirm it. In one reported case, which occurred on June 8, the U.S. frigate Halyburton apparently tried to redirect civil airliners in a manner that, air traffic controllers said, could have caused a midair collision. And The Washington Post quoted an air traffic controller in the region as saying, “They are horrendous in the way they challenge civilian aircraft and they are endangering lives.”

Despite the controversy, the American people seemed to stand solidly be-

hind Rogers, who said that his order to shoot down the Airbus is “a burden I will carry for the rest of my life.” In an ABC News/Washington Post poll of 524 people, released last Thursday, 80 per cent of respondents said that Rogers did the right thing under the circumstances. Many people noted that after an Iraqi jet blasted the U.S. frigate Stark in a mistaken missile attack in May, 1987, killing 37 crew members, its captain, Glenn Brindel, was dismissed from the navy for failing to act in time to protect his ship.

Last week’s poll also registered popular support for Reagan’s Gulf policy—originally designed to protect American-flag shipping from attack in the Iran-Iraq war. Eighty-two per cent of those polled said that the U.S. navy should stay in the area. Still, many congressmen, including supporters of the administration, expressed concern about the policy—especially new instructions to U.S. warships to come to the aid of non-American-flag merchant vessels if requested to do so. In that context, conservative Republican Senator John Warner, a former secretary of the navy, said, “We may very well have given our navy a mission impossible.”

Despite White House and Pentagon insistence that it was not legally responsible for the Airbus disaster, and that the Iranians were partly to blame

for letting the plane fly into a battle zone, Reagan was quick to express his “deep regret” for the loss of life. That was conveyed in a five-paragraph note delivered by the Swiss Embassy to Tehran on the day of the disaster. Asked by reporters whether he considered his message to be an apology, Reagan replied,“Yes.” As well, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that compensation for the families of the victims was under discussion, taking into account “humane and moral” considerations.

Still, throughout last week, Iranian leaders continued to portray the incident as a deliberate act. Addressing the crowd of mourners last Thursday outside the parliament in Tehran, President Hojatoleslam Ali Khamenei described it as “worse than hostage-taking, worse than hijacking.” But, although he said that, “God willing,” the Iranian people would “exact revenge with force,” he was contradicted at a mass prayer meeting the following day by parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani. Iran should not seek revenge, said Rafsanjani, because that was what the Americans wanted and “the world would turn against us.”

Observers said that the difference in tone appeared to reflect a continuing internal struggle for supremacy between Rafsanjani-style pragma-

tists and more radical political factions.

Rafsanjani, who was recently appointed acting commander of the Iranian armed forces by the country’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is regarded by Western observers as the nation’s most powerful figure next to Khomeini himself. Following a series of severe military setbacks for Iran in its nine-year-old war with Iraq, Rafsanjani had been seen as trying to modify Iran’s radical policies. His aim, diplomats say, was to end Iran’s diplomatic isolation and bring the war to a close by no longer insisting on the removal from office of Iraqi President Saddam Hussain. But observers speculated that the Airbus tragedy had given new strength to the hard-liners who refuse to consider anything but total victory over Iraq. And events at week’s end appeared to confirm that. In his role as commander-in-chief, Rafsanjani issued a sweeping mobilization call to “every man who can carry a gun” to report for duty at the battlefront. It seemed that the U.S. military action in the Gulf may have shot down not only Iran Air Flight 655 but also the slender hopes for an imminent peace in the region.



-JOHN BIERMAN with IAN AUSTEN in Washington, MICHAEL ROSE in Montreal and correspondents’ reports