Uss Vincennes Case Study

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Every event in the course of history is filled with clearly defined turning points upon which rests the outcome of the situation. Often times, these critical decision points do not seem extraordinary or even important when they are made, and would merely be recorded in the footnotes of history had their fuller implications been left unrealized. When such events happen that result in needless loss of life, the first questions to come to the minds of onlookers are: How could this have happened? Who is responsible? What when wrong in the series of events? What steps are needed to remedy the situation for the future? Ultimately, these people are asking: How did these critical decision points come to be ‘critical,' and why was the eventual decision chosen over other options?

For the United States Navy, this question should, and has, been asked of several critical decision points that took place on 3 July 1988. On this date, the summation of critical decisions resulted in the downing of an Iranian commercial airbus, needlessly killing all 290 civilians aboard. In particular, the decisions made by Captain Rogers of the USS Vincennes, Lieutenant Collier of the USS Vincennes, then-Commander Carlson of the USS Sides, and Rear Admiral Less of Joint Task Force Middle East (Bahrain High Command) allowed the events of 3 July 1988 to escalate beyond the capabilities of these individuals. By analyzing and investigating these critical decision points, future critical decisions can be chosen by US naval commanders to limit the loss of life.

On the morning of 3 July 1988, shortly after sunrise, the USS Vincennes moved itself north to investigate "sounds of explosions" as reported by the USS Elmer Montgomery. However, this command decision by CAPT Rogers was in direct contrast to his received order, which was to send his helicopter 40 miles north to investigate and keep the ship safely out of range of any possible action. Instead, CAPT Rogers' ship found several Iranian gunboats circling a neutral shipping freighter, using apparent harassment techniques, but not requesting any foreign aid. Upon reaching the Iranians, CAPT Rogers moved aggressively to intimidate the much smaller gunboats. At this point, the Omani coast guard requested for all foreign ships to leave Omani territorial waters, since the conflict had drifted into Oman's 12-mile territorial range.

The criticality of CAPT Roger's decision to move north had two implications later in the events on 3 July. Primarily, it put the ship in position to be 40 miles closer to the ensuing conflict with the same Iranian gunboats, two hours later. Secondarily, the presence of the US naval cruiser around the Iranian gunboats most likely heightened tensions, which had several effects. LT Collier, the helicopter pilot, probably felt that he could be more aggressive in his following of the gunboats, since back-up was nearby. The Iranians themselves were most likely more nervous, since the cruiser was there to intimidate them. This nervousness could have translated into trigger-happy firing at the helicopter within the next two hours, starting the engagement with the Vincennes. Finally, this certainly heightened the atmosphere of the Vincennes crew, who were on a new deployment to the Persian Gulf and were worried about being attacked in a manner similar to the USS Stark. Rather than risking all of these unnecessary developments, CAPT Rogers should have followed orders and played his ship defensively, rather than with the aggression displayed here.

When RADM Less' staff realized that CAPT Rogers was 40 miles out of position, they ordered CAPT Rogers to return to his designated position and to use the helicopter as the means of keeping track of the retreating gunboats. Dutifully, CAPT Rogers followed this order and sent LT Collier north in pursuit of the gunboats. However, the context of this pursuit was now different than it would have been had the Vincennes not been present for the Iranian...
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