Iran Air Flight 655: How did Australia react?

A question for Troppodillians: does anyone have a record of the Australian Government’s response to 1988’s accidental US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655?

I ask because the parallels with the MH17 shootdown are so clear.

At a political level the government’s response has so far been well-judged. There are few negatives in getting upset about the deaths of Australians overseas, particularly at the hands of a group aligned with a nation whose policies we rightly dislike, whose statements we quite sensibly distrust, and with whom we have few important links.

But at a moral level, it seems to me difficult to judge this episode more reprehensible than the Flight 655 shootdown. MH17 was shot down by untrained yahoos informally but closely connected to the Russsian government, probably by mistake. Flight 655 was shot down by the USS Vincennes on the orders of a formally trained US warship commander, fairly certainly by mistake.

The US, remarkably, never apologised to Iran or anyone else over the shootdown.

And my dim recollection is that the Australian Government responded that it was all a regrettable accident. Hansard’s online search doesn’t return anything from 1988. Does anyone have more detail?

A reminder of the response to Flight 655, from the careful-with-the-facts for Age journo Tim Colebatch (who was a foreign correspondent in Washington at the time):

… The initial US response in 1988 was to try to blame the victims. The then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe, told the world that flight 655 was flying outside the civilian flight corridor, was emitting military transponder signals, had ignored radio warnings, was flying low and was descending on the USS Vincennes at a rapid 450 knots when the captain ordered that it be shot down. All these claims were false, even if Crowe believed them at the time. It was only two days later, under intense questioning from journalists, that the Pentagon admitted the evidence showed that flight 655 was in fact a routine scheduled flight, emitting civilian transponder signals, flying in its proper corridor, climbing to a 4000 metre altitude, at normal speed. The US sailors clearly got much wrong. Similarly, the Russian rebels clearly mistook MH17 for a military jet and seemed unaware that commercial airlines routinely fly 10 kilometres above their land.
The US military admitted its mistakes. But President Reagan never publicly apologised to the victims’ families. The inquiry cleared the Vincennes commander, and he was later awarded the Legion of Merit. And US public opinion overwhelmingly blamed the victims. As UK Prime Minister David Cameron puts it, Russia is facing ”a defining moment” in its history. The US offers both good and bad examples for it to follow.

If you want more detail, the Flight 655 Wikipedia article seems pretty accurate.

Right now the Australian media is enjoying piling onto Putin – and really, who wouldn’t enjoy that?

But at some stage, someone should ask Tony Abbott what he believes the Hawke Government should have said about Flight 655, and whether the US should have apologised.

Update: I note that the PM has gone so far as to call this an “atrocity”, while the Foreign Minister has called it “barbaric”. This language seems over-strong for what appears likely to have been an accidental downing of a plane flying over a war zone. I do not recall any remotely similar language being used by Australian political leaders over the Flight 655 downing.

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net), editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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Phil
Phil
7 years ago

I don’t know what the Aus Government response was but I understand that the Americian review of the incident was that it was caused by an inexperience radar operator of the USS Vincennes who got it all wrong. The commander was cleared as he was acting on the information that his crew were giving him.

derrida derider
derrida derider
7 years ago
Reply to  Phil

Phil that’s what the American review said, true. But then that review was classic organisational behaviour – find the lowest ranking person you can get away with to make them scapegoat for the stuffup. A pile of other actions by higher ups, such as the policy decision to deliberately provoke Iran as much as possible in order to help Saddam and the the fact that the captain exceeded his orders (he had a history of doing so) and was in fact sitting in Iranian territorial waters – they all just never made it into that review. It took a lot more incompetence than the radar operator’s to bring that flight down.

Which of course is clearly also the case with MH17 – we shouldn’t excuse it all as just a regrettable mistake made by a half-trained flunky. But the point of the OP is that in fact we don’t so excuse it this time while we did exactly that last time.

Phil
Phil
7 years ago

I agree, it is always the untrained mug at the bottom cops the blame while the puppet masters get away with murder

Phil
Phil
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

The Commander is responsible for the safety of the ship, if he believes it is under threat he needs to take action. If he didn’t he could be court marshaled for endangering the safety of the ship. In fact there was another incident in that area when a fast motor boat (there had been attacks by such boats eg the Cole) was heading for another Americian ship. The Commander ignored it and as it happened it turned out that it was harmless. However, he was charged with endagering the ship and was found guilty.

Frank Zuperrela
Frank Zuperrela
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

“On Aug. 19, 1988, nearly seven weeks after the event* [ the US Navy shooting down a civilian Iranian plane on its normal flight path in Iranian territory], the Pentagon issued a 53-page report on the incident. Though the text didn’t say so directly, it found that nearly all the initial details about the shoot-down—the “facts” that senior [U.S.] officials cited to put all the blame on Iran Air’s pilot—were wrong. And yet the August report still concluded that the captain and all the other Vincennes officers acted properly.”

— Fred Kaplan (who states that when pointing out the discrepancies [lies] “Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci waved me away…”)

Doug
Doug
7 years ago

Robert Fisk has a detailed discussion of the incident in The Great War for Civilization – which provides a lot of valuable context in terms of the frame of mind that shaped the response of crew on the Vincennes. He also had interviews with air traffic controllers and crews of other US vessels in the vicinity who had reached the correct conclusion about the Iran Air flight

rog
rog
7 years ago

It’s usual that if a vessel is involved in an incident the master is told to sling his hook regardless of blame. It keeps them on their toes.

rog
rog
7 years ago

ICJ found that the shooting down of the plane to be a criminal act for which the US was responsible.

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
7 years ago
Reply to  rog

Actually the ICJ never made a finding, because the parties settled (although given the facts, had the ICJ actually been called upon to decide the matter, it’s difficult to see how it could have found otherwise than that the destruction of the airliner was unlawful and the US responsible).

crocodile
crocodile
7 years ago

There were no Aussies on board 655 so Hawke expressed no outrage. 13% of MH17 were Aussies including kids. Bishop can be as angry as she wants as we had little to do with either disasters. The US is being more measured as I’m sure they are mindful of the fact that Putin knows all about 655 and would not hesitate to use it.

Phil
Phil
7 years ago
Reply to  crocodile

And exactly what would Putin have that could be used against the US, are you suggesting a conspiracy? Maybe the US is being more measured in public as they want to get cooperation from the Russians, a belligerent attitude, which typifies the Abbott approach would be counter productive as Putin would most likely tell him to piss off (in diplomatic language of course).

The US would have very good evidence of what occurred. Due to the conflict there they would have been monitoring the place with a number of their space assets, one of these being an infrared missile warning system. The moment the missile was launched it would have been tracked. It is also likely that the system may have detected the heat from the aircraft engines. So they would have seen the missile explode and also have the aircraft track (which could be obtained by other methods if they didn’t). This information is generally not made publically available due to the secrecy around these systems.

crocodile
crocodile
7 years ago

Phil, The US has not even made an apology to the Iranians for doing pretty much the same thing. Grounds enough as you say for Putin to tell them to diplomatically piss off.

Phil
Phil
7 years ago
Reply to  crocodile

I am not defending anyone here, the US didn’t apologise but they did admit it and paid compensation. Putin would claim that it wasn’t Russia that fired the missile, but his surrogates certainly did.

peter
peter
7 years ago
Reply to  Phil

Phil, are you sure the US paid compensation? The SMH carried an historical piece on ‘shooting accidents’ and I noted no mention of compensation for the Iran incident. With all the embargos on Iran flowing from the Iran hostage era, I wonder how they would have made such a payment.

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
7 years ago
Reply to  peter

As part of the settlement agreement the US paid $131.8 million to the Iranian Government, of which slightly less than half went to the victims’ families. As appears to be common when a party doesn’t want to apologise, the US expressed ‘regret’.

rog
rog
7 years ago

It seems that all sides can play games with black boxes as per the Korean Airlines 747 shot down by the Soviets

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago

There were a few differences -The Iranian plane was at a much lower altitude (and thus if a ‘hostile’ pretending to be a airliner, it would have been more of a immediate threat – I.e a few seconds) ,and I think, it also did not respond to some radio challenges.

Doug
Doug
7 years ago
Reply to  john Walker

That the aircraft did not respond to radio challenges was not surprising – the captain was in communication with three civilian air traffic control centres at the time Tehran, Dubai and Bandar Abbas. Last report to air traffic control at Bandar Abbas was that he was climbing to 14,000 feet when the first missile hit.

The other US cruiser in the vicinity The Sides registered the Iran Air flight as climbing.

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
7 years ago
Reply to  Doug

doug

Perhaps the biggest difference is that the Vincennes did not immediately post boasts on twitter?