CREW CLEARED IN JET DOWNING STRESS ON 'VINCENNES' BLAMED

Fred Kaplan Boston Globe
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Saturday, August 20, 1988

A Navy report issued Friday concludes that human stress and error led officers on the U.S. cruiser Vincennes to shoot down an Iranian passenger plane on July 3, killing 290 persons. But the Pentagon's two top officials rejected an admiral's recommendation to censure one of the ship's crew members and continued to blame Iran for the accident.


The report casts no blame on the ship's Aegis radar-and-fire-control system. "The equipment functioned as designed," Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said Friday. However, he did note that the report suggests improvements in the system's design "that will make it easier for people to read the display and to communicate with each other." Increased training was also recommended.


The Airbus airliner was shot down during a skirmish in the Strait of Hormuz between the Vincennes and two armed Iranian speedboats, when officers on the Vincennes mistook the approaching jetliner for an F-14 jet fighter about to attack the ship.


All 290 persons aboard the plane, from six different countries, were killed.


The report affirms the view - expressed by Pentagon officials ever since the first news briefing on the downing, held 11 hours after the incident - that the ship's commander, Capt. Will Rogers III, had acted properly under the circumstances.


However, the 53-page report, by Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty of the U.S. Central Command, also finds - though it does not say so directly - that nearly all the details about the downing reported at that first news briefing were incorrect.


For example:


*At the original news briefing on July 3, Adm. William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the plane was flying at 9,000 feet and descending at a "high speed" of 450 knots, "headed directly" for the Vincennes.


In fact, the report concludes - based on computer tapes inside the Vincennes' combat information center - that the plane "was ascending through 12,000 feet at a speed of approximately 380 knots," and that it had reached 13,500 feet by the time the missile knocked it out of the sky. "At no time" did the Airbus "actually descend in altitude," the report said.


Friday, Crowe said he found this "the most puzzling mistake" since a digital display in the Vincennes would have revealed the correct altitude. The computer tapes, analyzed by Navy technicians who took part in the investigation, show that the Aegis' main radar, the SPY-1, had calculated the plane's altitude correctly. The report speculates that one of the officers, "in the excitement" of battle, might have confused altitude with range.


Crowe and Carlucci played down the significance of this and other mistakes. Carlucci said, "It's really questionable whether a different reading would have affected the judgment" to shoot down the plane.


However, Adm. George B. Crist, commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, wrote to Crowe, in his endorsement of the report, that misinformation about altitude and descent "may have been pivotal" in the decision to fire.


Crist issued a "non-punitive letter of censure" to the ship's anti-air- warfare officer, identified by Carlucci as a Lieut. Cmdr. Scott Lustig. Such a letter would be placed in Lustig's personnel file.


However, both Crowe and Carlucci overruled the rebuke. Carlucci said: "With all the publicity surrounding this incident, there is no such thing as a non-punitive letter. Any letter that is sent is going to be punitive. Therefore, I have decided to withdraw the letter."


The report and Crist exonerate Rogers from direct blame because Rogers, who considered the Iranian speedboats the more immediate threat, was monitoring the radar screen that displayed the action on the surface.


*Crowe said on July 3 that the plane had been flying "outside the prescribed commercial air corridor."


The report confirms earlier admissions that the plane had been flying "within the established air route."


*Crowe had also said, "There were electronic indications on Vincennes that led it to believe that the aircraft was an F-14." A Pentagon spokesman, Dan Howard, elaborated later, saying that the plane's identification beacon, known as a transponder, was "squawking" a code over "Mode 2" - a military channel - and that the code was "very similar" to that emitted just days earlier by known F-14s.


Howard further said the Vincennes crew had "interrogated" the beacon three times and had received the military code each time.


However, the report says the Iranian plane "was not squawking Mode 2" at any time, and that a radar operator on the Vincennes received this signal only once - not three times. The report says the signal was probably coming from a military aircraft on the ground at Bandar Abbas aircraft, most likely a C-130 transport plane, an F-4 fighter or an F-14.


This happened, the report says, because a Vincennes radar operator who "read" the plane's beacon while it was still on the ground accidentally kept the target indicator focused on the ground for 90 seconds after the plane took off.


As a result, he was picking up the signals from another plane, still on the ground, while believing the signals were coming from the Airbus.


*Finally, Crowe said at the July 3 news conference that the Iranian plane failed to reply to several warnings broadcast by the Vincennes.


The report confirms this and counts many as 12 warnings, issued by the Vincennes and other U.S. ships in the area. However, the report voices some doubt about whether the Airbus pilot heard the warnings.


While in no way excusing the Iranian pilot, the report says: "Due to heavy pilot workload during take-off and climb-out, and the requirement to communicate with" two air traffic control centers, "the pilot ... probably was not monitoring" the international air distress channel.


Even if he had been, the report says, the verbal warnings used by U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf "are ambiguous because they do not clearly identify to pilots exactly which aircraft the ship is attempting to contact."


The report recommends that the Navy revise the text of the warning to specify the transponder code and geographic point of the plane being warned.


Crowe also repeated his argument that "by any measure, it was unconscionable" for Iran "to ignore the repeated warnings of the United States and to permit an airliner to take off from a joint military-civilian airfield and fly directly into the midst of an ongoing surface action."