The Vicennes incident: another player on the stage?

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Roberts, Nancy C.
Dotterway, Kristen Ann
Date of Issue
Brassey's (UK) Ltd.
On 3 July 1988 at 1024 local time, the Aegis cruiser, USS Vincennes (CG49), shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with two standard missiles. The civilian airliner was on a routine, international flight from Bandar Abbas, Iran, to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, flying on a designated commercial airway. The missiles intercepted the airliner at a range of eight nautical miles (NM) from the Vincennes at an altitude of 13,500ft. All 290 passengers and crew were killed.1 It has been over five years since this tragedy, but the Vincennes incident remains a contentious issue. Many questions have been raised and remain unanswered, and perhaps never will be fully answered given the complex nature of the event and the strong feelings it has evoked in all who were touched by its horrible consequences. Despite the continuing controversy that surrounds the case, we believe there is still the opportunity for learning. Thus we revisit the Vincennes incident not in the spirit of recrimination or fault-finding, but in the hope that it can teach us how to minimize the chances of a similar occurrence in the future. We begin by summarizing the various inquiries, both official and unofficial, that have centered on the Vincennes incident. Limited by space and unable to do justice to all of the factors in this complex incident, we focus on one intriguing issue that has plagued all who have reviewed the case - the flight pattern of the Iranian airbus. Was it ascending or descending toward the Vincennes? We examine one possible explanation for the confusion over the flight path - the transposition of computer-assigned track numbers between Flight 655 and another aircraft in the operating area. Using the unclassified data from the formal investigation and report conducted by Rear Admiral Fogarty, we explore the extent to which thetransposition of the track numbers could have been a factor in the downing of the Airbus. We conclude with some of the lessons to be learned in undertaking this exercise and recommendations for follow-on action.
Series/Report No
Defense Analysis (DA)
Other Units
Naval Postgraduate School (U.S.)
NPS Report Number
Naval Postgraduate School
15 p.
N.C. Roberts, K.A. Dotterway, "The Vincennes incident: another player on the stage?", Defense Analysis, v. 11, no.1 (1995) pp. 31-45
Distribution Statement
This publication is a work of the U.S. Government as defined in Title 17, United States Code, Section 101. Copyright protection is not available for this work in the United States.