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Aspin Says Vincennes Skipper ‘Made Right Decision’

September 9, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Navy captain who ordered the destruction of an unidentified plane that turned out to be an Iranian commercial jetliner ″made the right decision, based on what he knew at the time,″ Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., said Friday.

″I believe he did the right thing, given what he knew,″ said Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, after hearing Navy investigators detail the series of stress-caused human errors which led to the July 3 incident.

All 290 people aboard Iran Air Flight 655 were killed when the plane was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz by two missiles fired by the USS Vincennes. The cruiser thought it was shooting at an Iranian F-14 possibly headed for an attack on the ship.

Aspin’s conclusion echoed statements made by other legislators during two days of hearings on the investigation led by Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty.

Fogarty’s report was made public three weeks ago, and he provided few new details in his testimony to congressional committees.

But the decision by the Vincennes’ skipper, Capt. Will C. Rogers, to fire two Standard missiles at the approaching Iranian warplane was not criticized.

That reaction was in sharp contrast to criticism of officers aboard the USS Stark, a Navy frigate hit by an Iraqi missile in May 1987, killing 37 American naval personne.

″In the one case, the Stark, you criticize the officers for not protecting their ship, for not protecting their men. I don’t see how you can turn around and then criticize the Vincennes’ captain for acting to protect his ship,″ Aspin said. ″I think you have to give the captain latitude.″

Fogarty’s investigation found that the sophisticated Aegis tracking equipment aboard the Vincennes worked well, but concluded that the data was misread by crew members who were taking the four-year-old ship into combat for the first time.

″I think a kind of ‘group-think’ takes over in this kind of situation and leads to this kind of happening,″ Aspin said.

As one example, he said the Aegis equipment showed the Iranian A-300 Airbus was climbing from the time it left Bandar Abbas, but that observers in the Vincennes’ combat center misinterpreted the data and believed the plane was descending directly toward the cruiser.

″You had one person make a mistake and then he’s talking about in the combat center and no one’s going to walk over to his console and read and tell everyone he’s wrong,″ Aspin said.

The Fogarty report detailed a number of human mistakes. In one instance, it said, an operator failed on five attempts to get the computers to select a weapon to shoot at the plane. The sixth succeeded.

Fogarty and other Navy officials said the service plans to try to improve training so that it will be as realistic as possible, but they admitted there is a psychological and emotional component to combat which cannot be simulated.

Aspin agreed. He said the committee will hold hearings later this year to consider ″this entire question of stress and combat,″ with testimony from psychologists.

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