The death of a fighter pilot


REMEMBER how the air war of Operation Desert Stor always looked, or sounded, as if John Ford had directed it?

Day after day U.S. pilots seemed to pick off every enemy jet they aimed at, while the Iraqi pilots always seemed to miss.

"We've destroyed 29 Iraqi aircraft -- with not one air-to-air loss on the part of the coalition," claimed Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf at a briefing in Riyadh on Jan. 30.

"The score is totally one-sided," President Bush asserted at a press conference six days later. "In fact [in] every engagement in the air the Iraqi planes and pilots have gone down."

Newspapers and television generally passed along this version of events, reporting that no allied planes had been shot down. Even after the war the Pentagon continued to promote a "totally one-sided" air victory.

"The Iraqi air force never really got into the air," claims a postwar study by the Air Force. "Those few pilots that did go aloft did not do well."

In the Pentagon's final report to Congress, "Conduct of the Persian Gulf War," the claim was repeated: "Coalition planes destroyed 41 Iraqi aircraft and helicopters in air-to-air combat without suffering a confirmed loss to Iraqi aircraft."

But the air war was not quite the shutout that the U.S. propagandists kept extolling.

Just hours into Desert Storm an engagement in the air claimed the war's first U.S. casualty: Lt. Comdr. Michael Scott Speicher, killed when his plane was blown to bits by an Iraqi MiG-25 -- and not, as the Pentagon has told the public, by a ground-to-air missile.

Early on Jan. 17, 1991, Comdr. Mike Anderson was leading Navy Squadron VFA-81 in the first wave of the allied air assault.

The squadron -- based on the aircraft carrier Saratoga in the Red Sea -- was headed north-northeast, at an altitude of roughly 30,000 feet. Because of the nature of the mission, each pilot had to fly alone.

When the team was about 40 miles from its targets, the squadron leader picked up an enemy aircraft some 3,000 feet above him and speeding in his direction: "He was going very fast," Comdr. Anderson recalled in a recent interview. "He was headed west-southwest and trying to get around me."

As the two planes started circling each other the squadron leader got a good look at the Iraqi plane: "I got a radar contact on him first and then I had a visual contact on him. I was very positive it was a MiG-25."

Early in that face-off Comdr. Anderson asked repeatedly for permission to shoot.

"I kept calling 'MiG-25' to the control agencies -- to the Awacs," he said. Such cautiousness was a strict requirement early in the air war, when the skies were filled with coalition aircraft.

In order to avoid "blue-on-blue" encounters ("friendly fire"), the U.S. Rules of Engagement forbade a pilot's shooting at another plane without approval from the Awacs surveillance-radar aircraft, whose crew could, theoretically, tell the good guys from the bad.

And so, with that MiG right in front of him, Comdr. Anderson asked to be allowed to fire. Permission was refused.

"They didn't see him," he said. "My controlling Awacs did not see him."

Why? The Awacs can be foiled by a rare phenomenon called the "Doppler notch."

When two aircraft are flying at or near the same speed and in the same general direction, both planes can vanish from the Awacs' radar screens.

Unless there was some human error, the MiG seems to have been obscured by this unusual glitch. And so, with no confirming blip before them, the Awacs personnel -- quite properly -- ordered the squadron leader not to fire.

After three turns the MiG broke away and headed toward the east. Comdr. Anderson proceeded on his course. A few minutes later, at 3:52 a.m., he was startled by an intense flash.

The explosion occurred somewhere off to the east -- where Comdr. Speicher had been flying.

In the military there was little question as to how the airman died.

"The day after he got shot down," recalled Capt. Carlos Johnson, a naval intelligence officer, "I told the people down here at Cecil Field [in Florida] how he got shot down."

As director of a Navy research group set up to analyze U.S. air losses during the war, Capt. Johnson was immediately sent all pertinent data from the gulf.

The group then reconstructed the event.

"We were pretty sure at the beginning," said Capt. Johnson in a recent interview. "Then, by the end of the war, we were pretty much able to prove that [the attack] was the only logical explanation -- other than his aircraft disintegrating."

Capt. Johnson deems such "catastrophic aircraft failure" unlikely nor does anyone believe that the FA-18 was hit by anything launched from the ground.

"There were no missiles deployed to the area," Comdr. Anderson noted. "And at our altitudes, there was no way a triple-A round (anti-aircraft fire) could shoot him down."

Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced that a surface-to-air missile had been the likely cause of death.

A cynic might insist that such official lying is a patriotic duty in wartime for the sake of our morale. Whether just or not, such a rationale is now irrelevant. Yet the lie lives on.

Here is the entire official treatment of the incident, as given in the Pentagon's final report.

"Fortunately, all but one plane (an FA-18 from the USS Saratoga) returned safely."

A page later the Speicher episode is further obfuscated by an upbeat description of another event, "a MiG shootdown by an FA-18 pilot, VFA-81, from USS Saratoga."

The passage -- which is anonymous -- ends with this suspicious bellow of esprit de corps: "Our relief in having successfully completed the strike without loss to ourselves was overwhelming."

Why this suppression of the facts?

The Speicher incident, first of all, disproves the central myth of Desert Storm: that war had now been made predictable -- and even safe -- by high technology.

In this case it was not that things were really going wrong, as with our futile air campaign against the Scuds.

Rather, the problem here was that a U.S. pilot had died in spite of an efficient system.

"Comdr. Anderson did what was right," said one Navy pilot who spoke on the condition of anonymity. This airman, who flew in the gulf, was equally supportive of the Awacs personnel.

"The guy controlling the situation said, 'No, you don't have enough indicators to say that he's Iraqi, so don't shoot him,'" the airman recalled. "But that kind of thinking probably saved thousands of American lives."

Nor had the Awacs malfunctioned. As Comdr. Anderson admitted, "I can't change physics, nor can anybody else. If [the MiG] was in their Doppler notch, they couldn't see it. They had no evidence a plane was there."

There also seem to be less conscious motivations at work.

Those overseeing the gulf war could not face the fact that an Iraqi pilot managed to kill one of our own and get away. Some within the military note the denial underlying the Speicher incident.

"I could never for the life of me figure why people don't want to admit that we had an air-to-air loss," wondered one Naval officer, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But that's really the gist of it. It's mostly an ego issue, as far as I'm concerned."

That refusal to acknowledge any loss was surely hardened by the American perception of Iraqi "backwardness" -- much as in Vietnam, where U.S. officers likewise deemed the enemy too primitive to thwart our gleaming weaponry.

Whatever the reasons for the cover-up, it slights the bravery of the pilots by censoring the dangers they really faced.

More important, the thick cloud of propaganda that was used to sell us Desert Storm betrayed the very notion of democracy, enforcing our wide-eyed support by keeping us all in the dark.

"His people have been lied to -- denied the truth," President Bush said of Saddam Hussein in a speech to Congress in March 1991.

Such systematic lying is indeed outrageous. Could it have happened here?

Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at Johns Hopkins University, is author of the forthcoming "Spectacle: Operation Desert Storm and the Triumph of Illusion."

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