The Long Shadow of War: The story of the shootdown of Iran Air flight 655

Admiral Cloudberg
43 min readMar 26, 2022
The front page of the Washington Post the day after the shootdown.

On the 3rd of July 1988, the US Navy missile cruiser Vincennes fired two guided missiles into the sky above the Persian Gulf — two missiles whose launch would shock the world, for their target proved not to be an enemy warplane, but Iran Air flight 655, an Airbus A300 passenger jet climbing normally on course after takeoff from the city of Bandar Abbas. On board were 290 passengers and crew, every one of whom now lay dead in the sky-blue waters off the coast of Iran. How could one of the most advanced ships in the US Navy have made such a catastrophic error? After multiple investigations, there is still no consensus about who exactly was to blame, or to what extent. Three camps predominate: those who believe Vincennes acted appropriately with the information it had; those who believe Vincennes acted negligently; and those who believe Vincennes shot down the plane on purpose. A close examination of the events from all three angles reveals the merits and inadequacies of each. But amid contradictory claims, hypocritical behavior by all sides, and continued mystery surrounding key decisions, only one thing is clear: the world has not done enough to ensure that those who possess the capability to shoot down airliners are ready to bear that responsibility.


Soldiers in the trenches during the Iran-Iraq War. (Iran International)

On September 22nd, 1980, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein declared war on his neighbor Iran, triggering what would become one of the bloodiest conflicts since the Second World War. Seeking to take advantage of the weakness of Iran’s new theocratic government installed during the Iranian Revolution the previous year, Iraq launched major offensives on multiple fronts, expecting a decisive victory. But it was not to be. By 1983, Iran had reversed all of Hussein’s initial gains and pushed onward into Iraq itself. The war soon dissolved into a bloody stalemate that has been compared to World War I, with widespread use of trench warfare, human wave tactics, and even bayonet charges.

At this point, both sides began to engage in indiscriminate efforts to cripple each other economically. After acquiring anti-ship missiles from France and the Soviet Union, Iraq began attacking Iranian oil facilities in the Persian Gulf, disrupting its adversary’s main export. Iran soon responded in kind. In 1986, Iran captured Iraq’s only access to the coast, forcing Iraq to export its oil — once again, its main source of revenue — through its neighbor Kuwait. In response, Iran began attacking civilian oil tankers carrying Iraqi oil out of Kuwait, sinking or damaging numerous vessels.

US warships escort an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf in October 1987. (Public domain image)

Even though Saddam Hussein was the aggressor in the conflict, both the United States and the Soviet Union supported Iraq for geopolitical reasons. While the US had no love for Hussein, relations with Iran were equally bad, and fears that Iran would defeat Iraq and then continue into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, disrupting US-bound oil supplies, trumped any history of antipathy toward Hussein’s regime. (Famously, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summed up US thinking on the matter with the phrase, “It’s a shame they can’t both lose.”) In an effort to prevent the collapse of Iraq’s government, the Reagan administration began supplying arms to Iraq, and despite opposition from the US Congress, in 1987 he authorized Operation Earnest Will, in which the US Navy was dispatched to escort Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf. By late spring of that year, Operation Earnest Will kicked into high gear as the US Seventh Fleet arrived in the region — but it would not get off to an auspicious start, nor in fact an auspicious middle or end.

The USS Stark after it was attacked on May 17, 1987. (Public domain image)

Before Operation Earnest Will could even begin, disaster struck when an Iraqi jet accidentally attacked the frigate USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors and wounding a further 21. Stark’s commander was criticized for failing to shoot down the plane when it took up an attack position, even though it belonged to a “friendly” nation. Then, on the very first day of the operation, a Kuwaiti oil tanker sailing under US flags was damaged when it hit an Iranian anti-ship mine, raising questions about why the US was not prepared to deal with mines. More ships, including minesweepers, had to be dispatched to the area to deal with the problem.

From then on, tensions only continued to escalate, with the US quickly becoming engaged in a low-level naval conflict with Iran in the Persian Gulf. This undeclared quasi-war came to a head in April 1988, when the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine, suffering severe damage. In retaliation, on April 18th the US launched Operation Praying Mantis, the largest naval battle fought by the US since WWII. Using multiple destroyers, several frigates, a missile cruiser, and an aircraft carrier, the US Navy obliterated a large portion of its Iranian counterpart, sinking six ships, destroying two offshore platforms, and killing 56 Iranian sailors.

USS Vincennes. (Public domain image)

It was in the aftermath of this battle that the US decided to expand its mission to the protection of all neutral ships in the Gulf, not just Kuwaiti ones. Shortly thereafter, on the other side of the world, the crew of the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes received word that they would be deployed to the Persian Gulf. An advanced Ticonderoga-class cruiser launched in 1984, the 172.5-meter Vincennes was equipped with the latest in naval technology, most notably the Aegis combat system, which is designed to protect an entire carrier group against airborne threats by providing simultaneous computer tracking of hundreds of targets, feeding information to the crew about each one so that they can quickly assess its threat level and respond using the ship’s main battery of Standard SM-2 surface-to-air missiles. Although Vincennes also had two five-inch guns and a number of smaller weapons, allowing it to defend itself against other ships, it was designed primarily to bring down aircraft, not to engage in surface warfare.

Vincennes’ mission in the Gulf would be to escort the damaged USS Samuel B. Roberts out through the Strait of Hormuz, then protect the fleet against airborne threats, as she was designed to do. After steaming all the way from California, Vincennes arrived in Bahrain on the 29th of May 1988. Two days later, under the command of Captain Will Rogers III, she began patrolling the waters of the Persian Gulf, keeping watch on the busy skies and crowded shipping lanes for any sign of an imminent attack. Only much later, under the light of tragedy, would the actions of Captain Rogers and his ship during the following month receive any sort of scrutiny.


The USS Elmer Montgomery, seen here in 1985. (Public domain image)

On July 3rd, one month after Vincennes arrived in the Gulf, the frigate USS Elmer Montgomery reported sighting a group of 13 small, fast-moving gunboats belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps potentially approaching a Pakistani merchant vessel near the Strait of Hormuz. The Swedish-built Boghammar gunboats were 13 meters in length and each was equipped with a 12.7mm machine gun, a 106mm recoilless rifle, and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher — not a significant threat to a massive US warship, but enough to do serious damage to an undefended tanker. Over US military airwaves, officers aboard the Montgomery gave a vaguely worrying picture of the situation: the Boghammars had issued threats to the Pakistani ship, then they had split into several groups and a number of explosions were possibly heard.

One of the closest ships to the Montgomery at that time was the USS Vincennes, and so, at 7:42 a.m. local time, Vincennes was ordered to steam north to investigate the reports. From there, events began to escalate rapidly. Captain Rogers sent the ship’s helicopter, callsign Ocean Lord, ahead to observe the gunboats and gather information prior to Vincennes’ arrival. Under the command of Lieutenant Mark Collier, the helicopter crew spotted the gunboats at about 9:45 a.m., at which point Collier’s copilot made a frantic call back to the ship: the Iranian Boghammars had fired on them with various small arms, missing the helicopter by about 100 meters, and Ocean Lord was in retreat. “Trinity Sword, this is Ocean Lord 25,” the copilot said, “We’re taking fire. Executing evasion.”

Immediately, Vincennes increased speed and closed on the position of the boats. Captain Rogers ordered his crew to general quarters, preparing for possible action, and within minutes the groups of gunboats hove into view on the horizon. At 10:09, Rogers asked for permission from his commanding officer to engage the gunboats in battle, and two minutes later, after a brief back and forth with the Joint Task Force headquarters in Bahrain, he received it. From that moment, as the USS Elmer Montgomery looked on from a few kilometers away, Vincennes began to fire on the Boghammars using one of its two 5-inch main guns.


EP-IBU, the Iran Air Airbus A300 involved in the incident. (Werner Fischdick)

Eight minutes later, in the nearby Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, the crew of Iran Air flight 655 completed their final checks and lined up with the runway for takeoff. Flight 655 was a regular flight by Iran’s state-owned flag carrier from the capital, Tehran, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, with a scheduled stopover in Bandar Abbas in both directions. In command were 37-year-old Captain Mohsen Rezaian, 31-year-old First Officer Kamran Teymouri, and 33-year-old Flight Engineer Mohammed Reza Amini, all experienced pilots; also on the flight were 13 other crewmembers and 274 passengers, mostly Iranians, although citizens of India, the UAE, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, and Italy were on board as well.

When flight 655 finally departed Bandar Abbas at 10:17, it was 27 minutes behind schedule, thanks to a passenger with immigration issues, but otherwise all seemed normal. The twin-engine, wide body Airbus A300 lifted off the runway and climbed away into the bright summer haze, turning southwest toward the Persian Gulf. The crew received permission to climb to 14,000 feet, and the pilots reported to the company that they were underway. Staying within the Amber 59 airway, they climbed past one cloud layer, then another, carrying out routine checks and communications.

And then, with a sound like thunder, an enormous explosion rocked their plane. Shrapnel ripped through the rear fuselage, blasting through both metal and flesh, and then in a great ball of fire the left wing tore free and spiraled away beneath the morning sun. Iran Air flight 655 began to fall like a leaf from 13,500 feet, spinning around and around, flames erupting from its ruptured fuel tanks. The plane accelerated faster and faster, tearing itself apart piece by piece, its tail breaking away under the enormous aerodynamic forces, her pilots powerless to save themselves from certain doom. Did Captain Rezaian and First Officer Teymouri look back and see the flaming hole where their wing used to be? What words passed between them, or between them and their god, during those horrific final moments? We will never know the answer, for what remained of Iran Air flight 655 plunged like a falling star into the bright blue waters of the Persian Gulf, taking with it the lives of all 290 passengers and crew.


Wreckage from flight 655 lies in port in Bandar Abbas after being recovered from the sea. (Tasnim News Agency)

Although Captain Rezaian likely never knew what happened to his plane, there were plenty of people who did, even before it hit the water. Sailors aboard the USS Elmer Montgomery and the USS Sides, another frigate located 20 nautical miles east of the action, had watched remotely as the USS Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles at an unidentified aircraft that had failed to respond to their warnings. Some of them, according to various firsthand accounts, were already aware that the unidentified aircraft was Iran Air flight 655. They could only watch in horror as the wreckage spiraled into the sea before their very eyes.

It would take slightly longer for Iranian authorities to make the connection. The disappearance of the aircraft initially went unnoticed because controllers in Bandar Abbas assumed, when it did not respond to their calls, that it had simply signed off and made contact with Dubai instead. Dubai, however, never had contact with flight 655 at all. Only when the flight failed to arrive at its destination 20 minutes later did anyone raise the alarm. Upon identifying the Airbus’s final radar returns, search and rescue operations were launched in the vicinity of Qeshm Island near the Strait of Hormuz, and there Iranian boats made a grim discovery: floating on the surface of the Gulf were countless pieces of light debris, unmistakably the remains of flight 655. Seat cushions, in-flight safety cards, pieces of fuselage skin, insulation, and luggage bobbed up and down on the waves — and all throughout were scattered the passengers and crew, men, women, and children, lying dead beneath the unforgiving sky.

Mourners carry the caskets of flight 655 victims through the streets of Tehran. (AP)

Word soon began to spread, as it is wont to do, that the US Navy had shot down the plane. There was no point denying it, for it was true, and the US admitted as much within hours. Nevertheless, high-ranking military officials went on the record saying Captain Rogers had acted correctly based on the information he had, an assessment which drew outrage in Iran and skepticism elsewhere. Within the Iranian government, the shootdown was seen as a deliberate warning that the United States was prepared to openly intervene in the war on the side of Iraq, and is considered by some analysts to have influenced Iran’s decision to accept a permanent ceasefire the following month.

In the meantime, however, the world wanted to know: how could one of the most advanced ships in the US Navy mistakenly shoot down a civilian airliner? It would be several years before three clear frames of analysis began to emerge, each providing a different interpretation of what happened aboard Vincennes during the seven minutes that flight 655 was in the air. One of these would come from the official United States Department of Defense investigation into the shootdown, conducted by Admiral William Fogarty. What follows is the first of the three arguments, that presented by Fogarty in his heavily redacted investigation report.

The front page of the Washington Post the day after the shootdown.


In Fogarty’s view, the circumstances leading up to the disaster began with the accidental Iraqi attack on the USS Stark in 1987. This incident underscored the danger posed by even seemingly friendly airplanes, and reminded Navy officers that when an aircraft appears to take up an attack posture, no matter its identity, the lives of their crewmen may be in real danger if they fail to shoot it down. This concern was compounded by a history of Iranian air attacks against shipping — Fogarty counted 187 such attacks between 1984 and 1988, although they trailed off significantly after 1986, when Iran started to curtail the strategy because it was losing too many airplanes. Nevertheless, airborne threats still sometimes presented themselves, including during Operation Praying Mantis, when Iran scrambled F-4 Phantom interceptors to the scene of the battle, one of which was subsequently damaged by a missile fired from the USS Wainwright.

In the weeks leading up to the tragedy, US intelligence had raised the alarm about a number of potentially escalatory steps that Iran might take in the near future. In June, US forces were warned that Iran was replacing its F-4 Phantoms, based in Bandar Abbas, with more advanced F-14 Tomcat fighters, and the crew of the USS Vincennes was advised that the F-14s might display more aggressive behavior, especially in light of recent Iraqi attacks on Iranian oil facilities, for which Iran was expected to retaliate imminently. Intelligence transmitted to crews in the days before the disaster warned that this retaliation could occur over the upcoming 4th of July weekend.

Iranian Boghammar gunboats similar to those involved in the incident. (Sayyed Shahab-o-din Vajedi)

On July 2nd, tensions continued to ramp up when the USS Elmer Montgomery intercepted a group of Iranian gunboats attempting to attack a Danish-flagged merchant vessel; Montgomery averted the attack by firing warning shots at the boats, which then fled. So it was not seen as a surprise when Montgomery again encountered Iranian Boghammars allegedly preparing to attack a Pakistani ship in the same area the following day — rather, this was seen as a continuation of a building pattern of Iranian behavior which, in combination with intelligence reports, had put the crew of Vincennes on edge. Without doubt, they were expecting trouble.

As Vincennes approached the scene of the latest gunboat attack on the 3rd of July, its helicopter was fired on by the Boghammars, and Vincennes hurried to back it up. When the cruiser arrived in the vicinity of the Boghammar group, several of the boats appeared to move rapidly toward the Vincennes and Montgomery, whose crews interpreted this as a demonstration of hostile intent. When Captain Rogers reported this to the Joint Task Force headquarters in Bahrain, the officers there gave him permission to return fire in self-defense.

The Vincennes Combat Information Center, as it appeared in 1988. (Public domain image)

In the Combat Information Center (CIC) — sometimes referred to as the ship’s brain — Captain Rogers now began overseeing a complex sea battle involving multiple fast-moving targets. Vincennes began firing one of its main guns, Mount 51, and the Boghammars returned fire with small arms and machine guns. Simultaneously, various officers used the ship’s Aegis combat system to track a number of airborne targets, including an Iranian P-3 Orion surveillance plane that was flying in circles, watching the events from some distance away.

The battle had been going for eight minutes when Iran Air flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas, appearing on the Aegis Large Screen Displays within seconds of becoming airborne. As advanced as the Aegis system was, it could not tell the crew that this was an Airbus A300; they would have to figure that out for themselves.

At that point, the crew in the CIC did not know whether this unidentified aircraft was civilian or military. Its point of origin provided no means with which to discriminate, because Bandar Abbas airport was used by both civilian flights and the Iranian Air Force; in fact, the F-4s involved in Operation Praying Mantis had taken off from that very same airfield. However, the system did provide one piece of information to help identify the plane: its Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) code.

The IFF system interrogates an aircraft’s transponder, which broadcasts information about the plane, and receives in turn one of several possible responses containing data about its identity. In 1988, this response could come in one of four possible “modes.” Transponders fitted to civilian aircraft are only capable of broadcasting in Mode III, while military transponders can broadcast in any of the four modes.

When Vincennes’ IFF interrogated the unidentified aircraft, it responded in Mode III with the transponder code 6760, the identity assigned to it by air traffic control and set manually by Captain Rezaian and First Officer Teymouri just before takeoff. But because military transponders could also transmit in Mode III, this was not by itself proof that the target did not represent a hostile aircraft. More information would be needed to make that determination. The commercial air schedule provided to the crew was no help, however — it was not updated in real time, so it included neither the aircraft’s transponder code nor its real departure time, and because of flight 655’s nearly 30-minute delay on the ground, combined with confusion about the Gulf’s many conflicting time zone boundaries, the crew were unable to identify the aircraft as any of the flights listed on the schedule.

At this point, poor user interface design led to an unfortunate misunderstanding. One of the operators responsible for identifying airborne threats used the Aegis display’s input knob to “hook” the unidentified target. A box appeared around it, moving with the target as it proceeded southwest, headed directly toward Vincennes. But he left the range setting where it was before, on Bandar Abbas. Admiral Fogarty determined that it was this move which set everything in motion, as the system, still searching for signals at Bandar Abbas, momentarily detected an Iranian F-14 sitting on the runway, and displayed a Mode II 1100 indication to the operators, alongside the Mode III 6760 indication from Iran Air flight 655.

An Iranian Air Force F-14 Tomcat. (Shahram Sharifi)

Someone evidently looked up this code and found that it corresponded to an Iranian F-14, falsely correlated it with the “hooked” target, and then called out the discovery to the whole CIC over their shared radio channel. Fogarty was never able to determine who said this, but everyone remembered hearing it — “possible Astro,” the person said, using a code name for the F-14. The warning was repeated up the chain of command until it reached Lieutenant Commander Scott Lustig, Vincennes’ air warfare coordinator. Lustig ordered Petty Officer Andrew Anderson, the operator responsible for speaking to aircraft, to challenge the incoming plane. Using the universal military distress frequency of 243.0 megahertz, he called out, “Unidentified Iranian aircraft on course 203, speed 303, altitude 4000, this is U.S. Naval warship, bearing 205, 40 miles from you. You are approaching U.S. Naval warship operating in international waters. Request you state your intentions.

Iran Air flight 655, being a civilian airliner, did not have a radio capable of picking up this military frequency, so there was no reply. Anderson decided to try again on the international civilian air distress frequency of 121.5, a channel pilots refer to as “Guard.” According to rules distributed to Iran Air pilots, and indeed every other pilot flying in the Gulf, they were supposed to have one radio tuned to this frequency at all times. “Unknown aircraft on course 206, speed 316, position 2702N/05616E,” Anderson said, “you are approaching US Naval warship, request you remain clear.” But again, there was no reply.

More newspaper headlines from the day after the disaster. (The New York Times)

The crew now tried lighting up the plane with the ship’s guided missile radar, which could be detected by any fighter aircraft, usually prompting an evasive maneuver, but the plane stuck to its course. This was because flight 655, like most civilian airliners, had no means to detect when it was being targeted. The Vincennes’ crew also tried to see if the target was emitting a signal associated with the weather radar carried on commercial airliners, but again, they found nothing. In his report, Fogarty would correctly note that the weather conditions at the time were benign and the pilots most likely had not turned the system on.

The time was now 10:21, barely four minutes since flight 655 took off. The plane was climbing from 6,000 feet toward 7,000, tracking slightly to the right of the centerline of the 20-mile-wide Amber 59 civil airway. It was not squawking Mode II, only Mode III, as it had all along. Nevertheless, one of the Aegis display operators manually tagged the plane as an F-14, based on the rumors flying around the CIC and the brief Mode II indication earlier, and that was how it appeared on everyone’s displays from that point forward. Captain Rogers, having been alerted to the presence of the target, described to him as a possible F-14, decided that he would shoot it down if it got within 20 nautical miles of his ship without changing course or acknowledging calls. His decision was relayed to the Joint Task Force command center in Bahrain, which reminded him to at least challenge it first.

Anderson now issued a second challenge over the military air distress frequency: “Iranian fighter on course 210, speed 353, altitude 7000 feet — you are approaching US Naval warship, operating in international waters. If you maintain current course you are standing into danger and are subject to US Navy defense measures. Request you change course 270, repeat, 270.” Again he was met with silence, for obvious reasons. He followed this up with another warning on Guard: “Unidentified aircraft on course 207, speed 350, altitude 7000. You are approaching US Naval warship bearing 205, 30 miles from you. Your identity is not known, your intentions are not clear. You are standing into danger and may be subject to US Navy defensive measures. Request you alter course immediately to 270.” And for the fourth time — silence.

A later report by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which drew heavily on Fogarty’s report, would note that the pilots were talking to several different air traffic controllers as well as Iran Air offices during the brief flight, and may not have had a radio tuned to Guard. And even if they did, ICAO noted, they might not have been able to identify themselves in the challenges, because Anderson did not use their transponder code 6760, the only completely unambiguous piece of information about the aircraft’s identity which was known to both the pilots and to Vincennes.

Yet another newspaper front page from the day after — this time the San Francisco Chronicle.

Not everyone was so mesmerized by the rumors that the plane was an F-14. Correctly observing that the plane was returning Mode III and a code beginning in 67-, a normal indication for a civilian airliner, one officer called out, “Possible COMAIR,” using a shorthand for “commercial airplane.” Captain Rogers raised his hand to acknowledge, but said nothing. He was busy handling the surface battle, which had taken an unexpected turn when a round jammed inside the chamber of Mount 51, taking one of the cruiser’s two main guns out of service. He ordered the ship to swing around 180 degrees to point the other gun, Mount 52, toward the enemy instead. Slipping into a high-speed turn, the ship heeled over 30 degrees to one side, sending loose papers and equipment sliding off the desks in the CIC.

Without having acknowledged any of the radio calls, the target passed the 20 nautical mile mark, where Rogers had said he would fire. Rogers still wasn’t sure what the plane’s intentions were — it was heading right for his ship, but it was at an altitude of 9,000 feet, rather high for an air attack on a surface target. He decided to hold his fire and wait for more information. Anderson issued several more challenges on both the military and civilian distress frequencies, but there was still no reply.

Moments later, someone called out that the target’s altitude was decreasing. Others followed suit. The plane seemed to be descending and accelerating on a classic attack profile. In interviews with Admiral Fogarty, every person in the CIC except for one remembered this happening. There was just one problem: it wasn’t. The Aegis combat system’s built-in “black box” showed that at no point did Iran Air flight 655 descend; in fact it was climbing normally the entire time. This discrepancy was so baffling that Fogarty decided to bring in a team of psychologists to try to explain why so many people would remember seeing something that quite clearly did not occur.

By the psychologists’ assessment, the crew of Vincennes fell victim to something called “scenario fulfillment.” When assimilating numerous ambiguous clues, the human brain tries to fit them into a scenario that corresponds with a range of pre-conceived possibilities. Already predisposed to expect an Iranian air attack, and with the plane labeled on their screens as an F-14, it would have seemed much stranger for the aircraft to keep climbing harmlessly into the sky than for it to suddenly dive into an attack profile. The latter was what the crew were expecting, and so that’s what they saw, raw data be damned.

Vincennes fires a missile during an exercise in 1987. (Public domain image)

Captain Rogers didn’t have time nor a reason to try to independently confirm reports transmitted to him by his trusted subordinates, and he took the news at face value. If the plane was an F-14 descending rapidly toward his ship, now at a range of less than 15 nautical miles, then Vincennes could very easily become the next USS Stark if he failed to act. He had to shoot it down.

At 10:24, Rogers turned the firing key and gave authorization to launch missiles at the target. One last challenge went out to the aircraft, and again it went unheeded. An officer pressed the button to fire. Vincennes’ missile battery roared to life, turned toward the target, and released two SM-2 guided missiles. For a moment, the lights in the CIC flickered under the power draw, then came back on. The crew watched to see if the aircraft would respond — they could destroy the missiles remotely if it did — but no answer came. Moments later, the first missile struck Iran Air flight 655 just behind the left engine, and the aircraft was destroyed.


The justifications cited in the Fogarty report to explain Captain Rogers’ decision to fire. (US Department of Defense)

Fogarty’s report is the most cited account of the events leading up to the shootdown, and all of Vincennes’ crewmembers stand by its contents. In the end, Fogarty determined that the shootdown was a mistake, but that Rogers acted correctly in authorizing it based on the information he had received, listing fourteen items that contributed to this decision (shown above), from the warnings of Iranian air attacks and F-14 activity to the lack of a response to challenges to the most important factor of all, the reports that the plane was descending rapidly toward his position. As such, Fogarty concluded that no negligence took place and declined to recommend disciplinary action against anyone involved, instead suggesting better training and improved Aegis interface design. He also said some blame must lie with Iran for failing to warn the pilots of flight 655 that they were flying directly toward an active naval engagement, and with the pilots for failing to listen on Guard.

But not everyone agreed with this version of events, nor with Fogarty’s decision to clear Rogers and his crew of blame. One of the foremost critics of the Fogarty report was a witness to the events of that fateful day: Commander David Carlson, captain of the frigate USS Sides, which was positioned 20 nautical miles east of Vincennes and had a live data link with Vincennes’ Combat Information Center. The decisions made aboard the USS Sides, Carlson contended, showed that the shootdown was far from a foregone conclusion, and could in fact have been avoided quite easily. And to make matters worse, in his opinion Fogarty’s report had mischaracterized the events leading up to the shootdown in order to obscure the fact that Vincennes was acting recklessly well before flight 655 even took off.

An excerpt from Commander Carlson’s 1989 article in which he first laid out his view of events. (US Naval Institute, “Proceedings”)


In a series of editorials, articles, and media interviews published during the months and years following the shootdown, Carlson laid out a compelling alternative viewpoint which called into question the stated reasoning behind the Vincennes’ actions on the day of the disaster. At the same time, other independent sources, including investigative journalists working for Newsweek and ABC, began to paint the events in a very different light from that used by Fogarty.

When Captain Carlson arrived to take command of the USS Sides in 1988, he was greeted by that ship’s serving commander, Captain Mark Hattan. Hattan impressed upon him a clear sense of the US Navy’s mission in the region: they were not there to fight Iran, only to protect neutral vessels, and it was their responsibility to pursue de-escalation at all times. Furthermore, they could not act as though they were surrounded by enemies. “War or no war, life in the Gulf goes on,” Carlson quoted Hattan as saying. Fishermen and cargo ships continuously crisscrossed those crowded waters, and commercial airliners were constantly overhead. That was a fact of life that Carlson would simply have to deal with.

Captain Will Rogers III, pictured in 2009, after his retirement. (Public domain image)

In Carlson’s view, however, Captain Rogers was not the type to faithfully execute such a restrained mission. According to both letters sent to Carlson and contemporary reporting by Newsweek, officers who trained Rogers before he was promoted to Captain were alarmed by his conscious tendency to go beyond the use-of-force limits imposed on the simulations in which he was participating. This habit of his became obvious once he was deployed to an actual combat zone. On June 2nd, just three days after Rogers’ arrival in the Persian Gulf, Carlson and Hattan were aboard USS Sides in the vicinity of USS Vincennes when they observed an Iranian frigate which had stopped a bulk carrier in order to search it for any material that could be used to support Iraq. Due to the cargo ship’s proximity to the coast of Iran, this was within its rights under international law. But Captain Rogers wouldn’t let that stop him from warning the frigate away.

As the two ships approached the Iranian frigate, Vincennes took tactical control of the USS Sides, allowing it to position the smaller warship where its commanders felt necessary. Rogers immediately ordered Sides to fall in 1,500 meters behind the Iranian frigate. Carlson and Hattan both agreed that this was too close. The frigate wasn’t doing anything illegal, but here it was, being confronted by two US warships, with several more approaching the area, and a US surveillance plane circling overhead. In Carlson’s view, they were backing the Iranian captain into a corner, increasing the risk of a confrontation. They soon proved correct, as the spooked Iranian frigate began to fire warning shots at an NBC news helicopter that got too close to the action. Fearing that things could get ugly if they stuck the course, Hattan and Carlson protested Rogers’ order to fall in behind the frigate, and the Joint Task Force headquarters agreed. Vincennes was ordered to stand down and observe the frigate from a distance, without interfering.

Word of the incident spread widely throughout the officer corps deployed in the Gulf. Vincennes started to be referred to pejoratively as the “Robocruiser,” possibly a reference to the 1987 action film Robocop, whose eponymous main character conducts an excessively brutal campaign of persecution against criminal gangs. In the July 3rd incident, the moniker would prove apt.

USS Sides, depicted in 2002. (Public domain image)

In Carlson’s view, the sequence of events leading up to Vincennes’ engagement with the Iranian Boghammar gunboats was not marked by restraint or de-escalation. As a matter of fact, according to reporting by Newsweek and ABC, Vincennes had been ordered to turn around and forget about the gunboats early in the confrontation, an order which allegedly drew laughter in Vincennes’ CIC. A tense exchange followed between Rogers and the Joint Task Force headquarters. Newsweek alleged that Captain Richard McKenna, the officer on the other end of the conversation, had forwarded the tapes to Fogarty’s investigation, but was ignored.

Instead of falling back as ordered, Rogers is said to have instructed Ocean Lord to continue to circle the gunboats to keep an eye on them. It was only then that the helicopter took fire. But Carlson noted that according to the rules of engagement, the helicopter was not supposed to have gone within four miles of the gunboats. And yet, if it had to dodge small arms fire, it must have been considerably closer than this. Lieutenant Collier, the pilot of the helicopter, admitted to Fogarty’s investigation that he had violated this limit, but told news agencies that he had not. In any case, no information about the existence of the limit, let alone Collier’s violation of it, made it into Fogarty’s report.

In Carlson’s view, the Iranian gunboats most likely never intended to hit Ocean Lord, but were simply firing warning shots because it had gotten too close for comfort. Nevertheless, this situation which Vincennes and Ocean Lord had themselves created became the justification to engage the boats in combat. Here again, Carlson noted a problem: if Vincennes’ crew actually felt that they had been attacked, why did they ask for permission to engage? Permission to fire is not needed when acting in self-defense. Furthermore, neither Vincennes nor Ocean Lord had been hit, and by the time the request was made, both were well outside the range of the weapons on board the Boghammars, so what exactly did they plan to defend against?

Iranians at a combined funeral procession and protest after the shootdown. (Washington Post)

Carlson was also quick to note that the idea of engaging with some Boghammars in “self-defense” was ludicrous not only in practice but in principle as well. “I mean they were not a worthy adversary,” Carlson said in an interview. “Take a look at my ship, with a chain gun, 50-caliber machine guns, a grenade launcher, and a 76mm gun — all this against a guy out there in an open boat with a 20mm gun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. You’d rather he just went away.” Nevertheless, despite the dubiousness of the justification, and the fact that battling Boghammars was way outside the scope of the Aegis cruiser’s mission, authorization to engage was granted. In Carlson’s view, the Joint Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Anthony Less, and his subordinates, should not have acquiesced.

The engagement itself, once it began, did not play out the way Fogarty described it in his report. Video shot on board Vincennes’ bridge shows the ship passing by a couple of Boghammars which appeared to be sitting there doing nothing at all, before engaging a more distant group that was simply milling about aimlessly, not moving toward Vincennes and Montgomery as Rogers reported. In fact, the Newsweek report noted that the gunboats were more than four miles away from Vincennes when she began to fire on them, and not only was Vincennes well outside the range of the enemy’s pathetic weaponry, but the crews of the Boghammars might not even have known that the cruiser was there until it opened fire, given the distance between them and the haze which was present at the time.

It was clear to Carlson that Vincennes never should have been engaged in this battle in the first place. But instead, Rogers pushed his ship in pursuit of action based on the flimsiest evidence of hostile intent. Carlson also assessed that among many crews there was a certain undercurrent of jealousy that they had not gotten the chance to participate in “real naval combat” during Operation Praying Mantis, and that no ship was more susceptible to this than Vincennes. Carlson believed that Rogers was looking for trouble, seeking to prove his mettle as commander of an Aegis cruiser, and engaged the group of Boghammars almost for sport.

A map of the incident attached to the ICAO report shows the Vincennes in Iranian territorial waters. (ICAO)

But perhaps the most astonishing revelation about this sequence of events only came out years later: in trying to catch and engage the gunboats, Rogers had steered his ship into Iranian territorial waters, well within the demarcation line running 12 miles off the Iranian coast. The video recorded in the bridge captured the ship’s navigator announcing that they had crossed the boundary, proving that Vincennes’ crew knew where they were. And yet this fact was never mentioned in the Fogarty report, nor did the unredacted version even include any coordinates that could be used to determine Vincennes’ position at the time of the shootdown. In presentations to the media, various military brass took great pains to avoid presenting any maps or other information that could reveal this troubling fact. But coordinates did appear in the ICAO aviation accident report on the shootdown, and when plotted they placed Vincennes less than ten miles from Iran’s Hengam Island. This directly contradicted numerous assertions by Captain Rogers and US military officials that Vincennes had been in international waters at the time of the shootdown, and severely undermined the notion that Vincennes had the right to fire at all.

Having now strayed into Iranian waters during a battle with no conceivable justification, the events described in the Fogarty report transpired, and the plane was shot down. But Carlson disagreed that Rogers made the correct decision based on the information he had, because USS Sides had most of the same information and came to a totally different conclusion. In fact, officers in Sides’ CIC suspected that the unidentified aircraft was a commercial airplane from the very beginning, and within minutes they were able to confirm that it was flight 655, a twice weekly run which had become so familiar that crews referred to it habitually as “the Hajj flight.” It was squawking Mode III 6760, a civilian code; it was climbing inside a civilian airway; it didn’t respond to being targeted by Sides’ guided missile radar; and there was no precedent for an Iranian air attack on a US ship. On the basis of these observations, and several others, the crew of the USS Sides assessed it to be a non-threat.

Iranians protest the United States following the shootdown. (CNN)

Carlson was therefore astonished to hear Vincennes stating over the radio that it intended to shoot down the aircraft at 20 miles. He was also skeptical of the notion that it was an F-14, or that an F-14 even represented a threat to the ship. After all, the F-14s used by the Iranian Air Force were not properly equipped to attack surface targets, so attacking the Vincennes using an F-14 made no sense. And it made even less sense coming so soon after Operation Praying Mantis, which should have demonstrated that attacking a US ship was a foolhardy endeavor.

At this point, Captain Carlson admits, he should have told Captain Rogers that his crew had assessed the target to be a commercial airplane, but he did not. Instead, he doubted himself, believing on some level that the Aegis cruiser, with all its advanced technology and access to intelligence, must have known something he didn’t. But he said nothing, and before he could reconsider his silence, Vincennes shot down the plane. No one wanted to believe Vincennes would shoot down a commercial airliner, until it did.


Photographers view wreckage collected from flight 655. (Pars Today)

Carlson did note a few other factors, not mentioned in Fogarty’s report, which may have contributed. Foremost among them in his opinion was the fact that tensions among the crews deployed to the Gulf had become unreasonably high. Intelligence reports always put forward the worst case scenario, even if it would mark a major departure from Iran’s current doctrine, which Carlson described as “pointedly non-threatening” and generally cordial toward US warships. In his view, the stream of intelligence was starting to sound like a broken record. “Yes, there had been an alert concerning a possible attack during the 4th July weekend — and every other day — by every conceivable means (or so it seemed),” he wrote in an article published by the US Naval Institute. The frequency of such alerts meant that it was difficult to use this one as justification for Rogers’ belief that an air attack was reasonably probable. And at the same time, the constant drumbeat of danger did put crews on edge. In the months before the shootdown, jittery sailors were reporting “mines” that turned out to be bags of trash, and a ship even fired warning shots at a “threatening” dhow which refused to respond to radio calls, presumably because it was a tiny boat made of wood which had neither a radio nor a skipper who could speak English. In this sense, the intelligence apparatus made it significantly more likely that someone would panic and press the big red button when they shouldn’t have.

An Iran Air employee distributes lists containing the names of flight 655’s passengers. (AFP)

For his part, Captain Rogers did write a rebuttal of Captain Carlson’s account, in which he dismissed Carlson as a troublemaker and quipped that his memory of the events only seemed to grow clearer with time. In his rebuttal, he wrote that “no testimony presented during the course of the [investigation] hearings” supported Carlson’s version of events, but this is not quite true — Fogarty’s report does have a single line acknowledging that there was quite a lot of commotion in the USS Sides’ CIC about the target being a commercial airplane before Rogers gave authorization to fire. Rogers says that if the rest of Carlson’s account were true, then he would have shared it at the hearings, but he declined an invitation to do so. Carlson, on the other hand, disputes the allegation that he was ever invited to testify.

Rogers further stated that he was allowed to pursue the gunboats into Iranian territorial waters under the principles of hot pursuit during self-defense, but this only holds true if one accepts that Rogers’ actions amounted to self-defense, which not everyone does.

He also attempted to add detail to the reason for the confusion over flight 655’s identity. According to Rogers, the Aegis system initially identified flight 655 as “Track 4474,” a standard designation for an unidentified target. It was under this name that his crew first noticed it. However, a short time later the system recognized via data link that the USS Sides had already given this target the name Track 4131, and in order to synchronize the two, it changed the name without notifying anyone. The name “Track 4474” was then later reassigned to a US Navy fighter deployed from the nearby aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. When this aircraft was shown to be descending, Rogers contends, his crew thought “Track 4474” still referred to the target that was inbound to his position, explaining why they reported a descent when their displays showed the plane was still climbing.

However, Rogers bizarrely claims that this version of events is outlined in the Fogarty report, even though it manifestly is not, at least in the unredacted version. Track 4474 is only mentioned briefly in the report and there is no discussion of any confusion with another plane belonging to the USS Forrestal, and in fact this explanation contradicts Fogarty’s conclusion that the crew made their erroneous reports due to “scenario fulfillment.”

The cover page of Iran’s submission to the ICJ outlining its opinions on the incident. (International Court of Justice)


In Iran, news of the airliner’s destruction was met with horror and indignation. Graphic videos of the bodies of women and children being dragged in from the sea were played over and over again on state television. The population was angry, and justifiably so. The Americans’ assertions that Rogers acted reasonably in shooting the plane down, and the continued support for this interpretation in the Fogarty report, only added fuel to the fire. Therefore, over the weeks and months following the shootdown, the Islamic Republic of Iran began to formulate its own analysis of the events leading up to the tragedy.

In a more than 300-page testimony submitted to the International Court of Justice in 1990, Iran laid out its argument that Captain Rogers either shot the plane down intentionally, or was so reckless that his actions might as well have been intentional. Although US media tend to dismiss Iran’s view out of hand, their case is actually worth considering.

The Iranian argument begins with the fact that Captain Rogers and his crew should have known that their target was a commercial airliner. For one, the Aegis system, at the time of the shootdown, clearly indicated that the aircraft was squawking only Mode III with a civilian code; the plane was ascending well beyond attack range; it was inside the Amber 59 air corridor; and a crewmember had even told Captain Rogers that he thought it was a commercial airplane. The schedule also should have presented no difficulty, as flight 655 was the only plane scheduled to use the Amber 59 airway that morning. If the USS Sides and the USS Elmer Montgomery were able to correctly identify it based on all of this information, Vincennes should have been able to as well.

Furthermore, as Carlson also pointed out, there was no precedent for an Iranian air attack on a US warship, nor was an F-14 suitable for that purpose, and Iranian planes had always responded to challenges in the past. And perhaps most importantly, the aircraft had not illuminated Vincennes with its guided missile radar, a necessary step if it was planning to attack. Therefore, at the time Captain Rogers authorized it to be shot down, there was no evidence whatsoever that the plane was a threat, and plenty of evidence that it was not.

Iran released this postage stamp to commemorate the disaster. (Foreign Ministry of Iran)

Considering that the crew of the USS Vincennes was trained to handle open sea battles against the Soviet Union, during which they would have to keep track of hundreds of potentially hostile targets, Iran argued that it strained credibility to believe they could have committed such a comedy of errors when attempting to identify a single target behaving completely normally in an almost clear sky. The Defense Department had explained the shootdown using a wild chain of events involving numerous easily preventable misunderstandings and poorly understood psychological phenomena. The simpler explanation by far, in Iran’s view, was that Captain Rogers knew or at least suspected that the plane was a commercial airliner and decided to shoot it down anyway.

The Iranian side argued that there were two possible motivations for this deliberate attack. One argument, which was more confined to Iran’s inner circles of government, was that Rogers had been ordered to shoot the plane down in order to pressure Iran into agreeing to a peace treaty with Iraq. On the other hand, the theory publicly put forward in Iran’s submission to the ICJ was a little less conspiratorial: that Captain Rogers was gunning for a fight, wanted to show off his ship’s anti-air capabilities, and callously disregarded evidence that the plane was a commercial airliner in order to get the action he wanted.

In support of this argument, Iran questioned whether any warnings were actually issued over the civilian air distress frequency, as neither the Bandar Abbas controller nor his counterpart in Dubai could recall hearing the challenges. In fact, the only person or vessel with access to 121.5 that remembered hearing any challenges was the crew of a single British warship; even other American warships could recall no such transmissions. Iran concluded that the challenges therefore were most likely never issued, or were not issued on 121.5, and the Vincennes did not intend for flight 655 to hear them.

An Iran Air pilot mourns his wife, who was among the crewmembers on flight 655. (AP)

In order to cover all of its bases, Iran also presented arguments for why the US Navy behaved negligently even if the shootdown was unintentional. For one, Annex 11 of the ICAO treaty, of which both the US and Iran were signatories, obliged member states to coordinate their military activities with local air traffic control. However, during its mission in the Persian Gulf, the US Navy did not do this. The ICAO report on the accident in fact claimed that US warships didn’t even have the capability to talk to civilian air traffic control, but Iran correctly pointed out that this was contradicted on page 50, paragraph 6 of the Fogarty report. US warships in fact did have radios capable of broadcasting on civilian frequencies other than 121.5 (albeit limited in number), and simply failed to use them.

Noting the above, Iran rebutted Fogarty’s assertion that Iranian authorities should have warned flight 655 of the naval activity. Air traffic controllers in Bandar Abbas simply didn’t know about the ongoing sea battle because Vincennes never told them. Implicit in this argument was an acknowledgement that the decentralized groups of Revolutionary Guard Corps boats attacked by Vincennes had no ability to tell ATC either, or were simply unaware that a major battle was occurring.

Protestors pack the streets of Tehran after the shootdown. (Norbert Schiller)

In his report, Fogarty had also mentioned a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration instructing all pilots in the Persian Gulf area to monitor 121.5 at all times. However, Iran pointed out, as did the ICAO report, that the US had no authority under international law to issue a NOTAM covering an area where they had no air traffic control jurisdiction. This NOTAM therefore was not binding for Iran Air pilots, and even though its contents had been transmitted to them, they were not obligated to monitor the distress frequency, and could not be considered at fault for the fact that they failed to do so.

Lastly, Iran noted the difference between the US response to the accidental Iraqi attack on the USS Stark and their own attack on Iran Air flight 655. After the Stark attack, the US argued that all blame fell on the Iraqi pilot, because he should have known he was attacking a US warship based on the available evidence. A similar argument was made after the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air flight 007 in 1983. Evidently, if the same logic were applied to Iran Air flight 655, that would leave the crew of Vincennes wholly at fault, regardless of any intent, because they had plenty of evidence that they were firing at a commercial airliner. Furthermore, international law clearly indicated that states were legally responsible for collateral damage caused by their militaries even if intent to harm was not shown. In this sense, even if the shootdown was an accident, Fogarty’s decision to find no fault with Vincennes’ crew or with the US military as a whole violated international law and represented a hypocritical evasion of responsibility for the preventable deaths of 290 civilians.


A funeral procession for two victims of the shootdown. (AP)

Although many of the points made by Iran were completely valid, there are a couple which should not be accepted uncritically. For one, the notion that Rogers shot the plane down intentionally relies on the assumption that the entire crew has since conspired to keep this a secret, which is difficult to accept. The alleged motivation is also lacking in credibility. And the Fogarty report and Rogers himself specifically attempted to rebut several of the key points. In Fogarty’s opinion, the fact that the unidentified aircraft had not illuminated Vincennes with guided missile radar was not proof that it lacked hostile intent, because it could have been trying to get inside Vincennes’ minimum missile range before launching its attack. Fogarty also dismissed the significance of the fact that the plane was within a civilian air corridor, noting that the same could be said of more than 50% of the Persian Gulf.

Another of Iran’s points, that the crew were well-trained and could handle up to 200 targets simultaneously, is also contradicted not by the Fogarty report but by the Newsweek piece that backs Captain Carlson’s interpretation. In their reporting, Newsweek alleged that crews being trained on the Aegis system were tipped off in advance about the type of threats they would encounter, because if they were not, the amount of information was so overwhelming that they would inevitably make mistakes. In fact, the protocol to be used when actually facing 200 potential threats was basically to let the computer determine which targets displayed hostile intent, shoot those down, and hope that the computer was right. Considering these allegations, it seems that the crew which supposedly could not have made such a basic mistake was perhaps not the well-oiled machine the United States pretended it was.

All that having been said, Iran’s other argument, that Vincennes’ actions amounted to negligence, holds up to scrutiny. While the assertion that the shootdown was intentional can be dismissed, it is equally difficult to accept that Vincennes’s crew displayed no negligence in identifying the plane as an F-14 when other ships were easily able to determine that it was a civilian airliner based on the exact same evidence. For this reason, among many others, the conclusions of Fogarty’s report and the credibility of his investigation necessarily remain in question to this day.


Relatives of the victims throw flowers into the Persian Gulf during a 2011 ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the disaster. (Fars News Agency)

Unfortunately, even after 34 years, there is no consensus as to which of these three arguments holds the most merit. Which view commands more salience with the American public is difficult to assess as most Americans have completely forgotten about the shootdown. Iranians, however, remember quite well how the US responded: with a begrudging admission that it did, in fact shoot down the plane, but a stubborn refusal to admit more than the bare minimum level of culpability. Nor have Iranians forgotten that when Vincennes returned home to San Diego, her entire crew were given medals for serving in a combat zone, while Captain Rogers received a medal for outstanding service during the years 1987–1989. The awards ceremony duly ignored the fact that during this tour of duty, Rogers was responsible for the deaths of 290 innocent civilians and precisely zero enemy combatants.

The United States never apologized for shooting down the plane, choosing to “express regret” instead, but it did eventually settle Iran’s suit in the International Court of Justice to the tune of $131.8 million. This was less than Iran had asked for, but it was clear a better deal would not be forthcoming. Iran accepted the settlement, but the distrust generated by the ordeal never went away. Ever since, the tragedy of flight 655 has formed the centerpiece not only of Iranian state propaganda, but of Iranians’ conception of themselves as a nation victimized by, but not afraid of, the world’s superpowers. For decades afterward, the same video clips from the aftermath of the disaster would reappear on Iranian television every July 3rd, reminding the people of Iran that the United States killed 290 of their countrymen. That is — until a cold night in January 2020, when both sides were forced to look at the issue from an uncomfortable new angle.


The wreckage of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. (Mahmoud Hosseini)

Today, no discussion of Iran Air flight 655 is complete without alluding to its bizarre and tragic sequel: the shootdown of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 over Tehran on January 8th, 2020. This second tragedy took place during another period of heightened tensions between the US and Iran. The United States had recently assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, leader of an elite subdivision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, while he was on a secret trip to Iraq. On the night of January 7th, Iran retaliated by launching a barrage of missiles against a US military base in Iraq, causing some damage but claiming no lives, American or otherwise. Nevertheless, it was widely believed that the United States may have been looking for a pretext to wage a broader war on Iran, and the world waited with bated breath for an American counterattack. As it happened, the US harbored no such intentions, and no counterattack ever came.

However, during those critical hours when the US response was still uncertain, panic gripped Iran as thousands sought to flee the country in the middle of the night, fearing imminent bombardment. Amid the chaos, the operator of an Iranian mobile SAM unit, apparently spooked by the indications shown on his own improperly calibrated instruments, fired two missiles at a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737–800 which had taken off moments earlier from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport. Both missiles struck true, crippling the 737 beyond any hope of recovery. The plane remained airborne for another two and a half minutes, out of contact with ATC and visibly engulfed in flames, before it crashed into an exurban area west of Tehran. All 176 passengers and crew perished in a towering explosion and a hail of debris. The majority of the victims were Iranian citizens, who had once again paid the price for a soldier’s negligence.

Flight 752’s tail section, notably covered in soot from the in-flight fire. (Akbar Tavakoli)

Although the Iranian government initially rejected the notion that its military had shot down the plane, the evidence soon proved overwhelming, and they were forced to admit responsibility after three days of ham-fisted denials. Official propaganda vacillated between playing up Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani’s apology, which was contrasted with the reaction of the United States, and blaming the United States for creating the conditions for the disaster to occur. But after a couple of weeks, state channels largely ceased to discuss the matter at all.

Nevertheless, the irony of the situation was not lost on anyone: after years of playing up the shootdown of Iran Air flight 655, Iran had gone and made exactly the same mistake. The Ukraine International Airlines disaster necessarily provoked some soul-searching, possibly even among Iran’s military and political elites, although evidence is scant. Either way, however, the tragedy should remind us of a troubling hypocrisy which afflicts every country involved in such a debacle: we are always quick to condemn those who shoot down commercial airliners, until such time as our countrymen are the ones behind the gun.

The wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 after it was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014. (Dmitry Lovetsky)

The fact is that every known shootdown of an airliner by a state actor has been, on the weight of the evidence, an accident (with the possible exception of Libyan Arab Airlines flight 114, shot down by Israel over the occupied Sinai in 1973). There is usually a great deal of negligence involved, but in no instance has anyone ever proven a deliberate intent to kill civilians for its own sake; rather, the most common cause by far is mistaken identity. That was the case for Iran Air flight 655 just as much as it is for Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. And yet countries around the world seldom hesitate to capitalize on these tragedies to promote broader arguments against the responsible party — whether that was Iran after the flight 655 disaster, the United States after the Russian shootdown of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, or Russia after Ukraine accidentally shot down a Siberia Airlines jet in 2001. In every case, the errors made by individuals on the ground were subordinated to criticism, however justified, of the enemy nation in its totality. We only begin to question this tradition when our troops are the ones who fired the missile, in which case we take the opposite extreme, rationalizing away responsibility, as the United States did in 1988.

As unpopular as this truth may be, airliners don’t get shot down because countries are evil; in reality, shootdowns happen because we don’t have a safety net adequate to prevent them. Communication between military forces and civilian airlines and controllers in many parts of the world remains spotty or even nonexistent. Had there been such coordination, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 might not have been shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014, and Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 might have escaped its fate as well. It is only after these two most recent shootdowns that airlines and countries around the world have begun to adopt a policy of grounding all air traffic in times of war. This is a prudent move which should be welcomed by all — but it demonstrates the difficulty inherent in preventing this type of accident by any less drastic means. No matter how well we train our pilots and maintain our planes, they will remain vulnerable to acts of war, mistaken or otherwise, carried out in a fog of confusion by people who must make life or death decisions without a strong regulatory framework.


Iranian children throw flowers into the Gulf in memory of the victims of flight 655. (Atta Kenare)

When we as a society give someone the authority to wield surface-to-air missiles, we trust that they understand the responsibility that comes with such firepower. Iran Air flight 655 is perhaps the best proof that that trust is sometimes misplaced. Ideally, everyone who has the power to press that button should recognize that they do not have the freedom to make mistakes. There is no acceptable number of commercial airliners that may be shot down per 100 enemy aircraft destroyed, other than zero. There is a tendency in many militaries to focus on minimizing personnel deaths at the expense of anyone else, a tendency which we are within our rights to question. Captain Rogers thought that by shooting down the unidentified target, he was protecting the lives of his crew, despite the fact that one of his subordinates had told him that the target might be a commercial airplane. Was it worth it to take that risk? The 290 civilians who perished aboard flight 655 would say no, but they are dead and cannot speak. We should speak for them when we affirm that no, it was not worth it. And yet officers like Rogers would contend that to fail to defend oneself against a potential threat is untenable, and they would be right — no military would ever take on such a doctrine. For that reason, as long as humanity continues to wage war, we can never rule out the possibility that another airliner will be shot down, and the same story will play out yet again, with a new setting and cast of characters, but the same plot that we have already seen too many times. And so, in the end, we can only conclude that war itself is the problem.


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Admiral Cloudberg

Kyra Dempsey, analyzer of plane crashes. @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit, @KyraCloudy on Twitter and Bluesky. Email inquires ->