WASHINGTON — Crew members of the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes made several understandable mistakes under "the fog of war" before the ship blew an Iranian airliner from the sky last month, but none was negligent and no disciplinary action is warranted, Pentagon leaders said Friday.
The stress of combat probably contributed to the crew's inability to positively identify the aircraft as a commercial flight, which approached the ship in the midst of a battle with Iranian gunboats, said Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they released findings of a board of inquiry.
Carlucci said the investigation would lead to a number of changes in operations, including modifying the devices that display critical information on approaching targets in the cruisers and subjecting operators of their Aegis air defense systems to psychological testing to ensure that they are ready for combat.
No Discipline Planned
Both men said the mistakes, by crew members who weren't about to take chances with their own ship's safety, did not flow from negligence and Iran bears a heavy responsibility for the downing of Flight 655 and the deaths of the 290 aboard. As a result, no Navy officers or sailors will face any disciplinary action in the affair.
Carlucci said a non-punitive letter of censure previously issued to one officer already has been withdrawn at Carlucci's direction.
Crowe declared 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 (battle)."
The Vincennes was literally in the midst of fighting with several small Iranian gunboats when its radar system detected the Iranian airliner taking off from Bandar Abbas, where a large military airfield is located, Crowe and Carlucci said.
"It was only prudent for Capt. (Will) Rogers to assume that the (radar) contact was related to his engagement with the Iranian boats until proven otherwise," Crowe said.
'Proof Never Came'
"The proof never came," he said. "Given the time available, the commanding officer could hardly meet his obligation to protect his ship and crew and also clear up all of the possible anomalies or ambiguities.
"I believe that given the operating environment, Capt. Rogers acted reasonably and did what his nation expected of him in the defense of his ship and crew."
The destruction of the airliner was "a by-product of the Iran-Iraq war," the admiral concluded.
Carlucci and Crowe appeared at a special press briefing Friday to unveil the findings of the board of inquiry headed by Rear Adm. William M. Fogarty. They released an unclassified, 53-page version of the investigative report.
Carlucci said President Reagan had been briefed on the report and concurred with the findings.
The Vincennes, one of the Navy's most sophisticated Aegis air-defense cruisers, shot down an Iranian A-300 Airbus on July 3 while on patrol in the Persian Gulf after misidentifying the plane as an Iranian F-14 fighter.
The United States has apologized and has informed Iran that it will offer compensation to the victims' families. Iran, which was scheduled to begin a cease-fire in its long war with Iraq on Saturday, has accused the United States of deliberately shooting the plane down.
The investigative report dismissed that charge, stating:
Was Not Purposeful
"The USS Vincennes did not purposely shoot down an Iranian commercial airliner. Rather, it engaged an aircraft the commanding officer . . . believed to be hostile and a threat to his ship and to the (nearby frigate) USS Montgomery."
In reviewing the evidence and computer tapes of the combat, however, there was a "sense of inexorability" that the airliner would be shot down, Carlucci said Friday.
There was "one target moving steadily at you on a constant bearing, decreasing range, refusing to respond or not responding to all of (12 radio) challenges," Carlucci said.
"The question is not whether mistakes were made," the defense secretary continued. "The question is whether the mistakes were critical and whether they were due to culpability or negligence, and the finding is that they were not."
Despite the mistakes, it is hard to second-guess the Vincennes because of the wartime footing it was operating on, Crowe insisted.
For example, even if a crewman had not reported detecting the identification signal used by military aircraft, "the plane would have remained designated 'unidentified, assumed hostile' and would have been treated as a potential threat by the captain and the crew," Crowe explained.