Sunday, August 02, 2009

Coming Home

Eighteen years after he disappeared in the early hours of the Persian Gulf War, Navy Captain Scott Speicher is coming home.

The Defense Department announced early today that remains recovered in the Iraqi desert have been positively identified as those of the F/A-18 pilot, who was shot down on the first night of Operation Desert Storm.

Pentagon officials said that bone fragments were recently recovered in Iraq's western Anbar Province. Investigators used dental records to confirm that the remains were those of Captain Speicher.

According to the AP, a tip from an Iraqi led U.S. forces to the site where Speicher was buried:

Officials said Sunday that they got new information last month from an Iraqi citizen, prompting Marines stationed in Anbar to visit a location in the desert which was believed to be the crash site of Speicher's FA-18 Hornet.

The Iraqi said he knew of two other Iraqis who recalled an American jet crashing and the remains of the pilot being buried in the desert, the Pentagon said.

"One of these Iraqi citizens stated that they were present when Captain Speicher was found dead at the crash site by Bedouins and his remains buried," the Defense Department said in a statement.

The military recovered bones and multiple skeletal fragments and Speicher was positively identified by matching a jawbone and dental records, said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp.

He said the Iraqis told investigators that the Bedouins had buried Speicher. It was unclear whether the military had information on how soon Speicher died after the crash.

Some had said they believed Speicher ejected from the plane and was captured by Iraqi forces, and the initials were seen as a potential clue he might have survived. There also were reports of sightings.

Over the years, the Pentagon (and U.S. intelligence agencies) mounted an intensive effort to determine Speicher's fate. Based on updated information, the pilot's status actually changed in 2001, from "killed in action," to "missing in action." Reportedly, this was the first time a missing military member's status was revised from KIA to MIA.

A year later, Speicher was classified as "missing/captured," and in March 2009, he was listed as "missing in action." Speicher's family resisted military efforts to list him as killed-in-action, allowing them to (essentially) close the book on the missing pilot.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 yielded new hints on Speicher's fate. In a prison at Hakimyah, searchers found the initials "MSS"--in western hand-writing--inside a cell. That prompted new speculation that Captain Speicher had survived the shoot-down of his F/A-18 and had been held prisoner by Saddam's regime.

Speicher's name also appeared on at least one list of prisoners held by Iraq, but analysts believed the document may have been produced to confuse the U.S.

The Navy pilot disappeared during the first wave of airstrikes against Iraq on the night of January 16, 1991. For years, the service maintained that Speicher was shot down by an enemy surface-to-air missile, most likely an SA-6 Gainful. But more recent analysis suggests that the F/A-18 was downed by an Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbat, firing an AA-6 air-to-air missile.

That assessment is significant, because the U.S. initially believed that none of its aircraft were shot down by Iraqi fighters. While Saddam's air force quickly retreated in the face of coalition air dominance, a few Iraqi pilots tried to engage allied aircraft, particularly in the early stages of the war.

Iraq's MiG-25s (like the one that downed Speicher's jet) were generally flown by more experienced pilots, although their dog-fighting skills paled in comparison to western aviators. Additionally, the AA-6s carried by their aircraft were poorly-suited for air combat against other fighters. Each AA-6 (NATO nickname: Acrid) weighed as much as a Volkswagen Beetle and can be easily out-maneuvered by fighter aircraft.

Captain Speicher's inability to dodge the AA-6 suggests a number of scenarios. Perhaps he was "heads-down" in the cockpit at the time and didn't see the large exhaust flame from the Russian-built missile. Of course, there were hundreds of aircraft in the skies over Iraq that night; scores of missiles in the air, afterburner plumes and other streaks of light that would make it hard to pick up the in-bound AA-6.

The same holds true for audio and visual cues from the F/A-18's Radar Warning Receiver (RWR). There were countless signals received by the RWR unit, which processes them and provides a visual display (and audio tones) for the pilot. In some cases, even harmless electronic signatures will be interpreted--and depicted--as hostile systems. If a pilot has no reason to believe that a particular threat is active in his area, he may downplay (or even ignore) what he sees on his RWR scope and hears in his helmet.

And that brings us to another, critical element of the Speicher shoot-down. To our knowledge, DoD has never disclosed publicly what activity E-3 AWACS and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft were showing in the area when the F/A-18 was knocked out of the sky. On the opening night of Desert Storm, those platforms were responsible for producing a melded "picture" of Iraqi threat activity and passing warnings to allied aircraft.

It would be interesting to know if AWACS had a radar track on the Iraqi MiG-25, and its presence was confirmed by associated SIGNINT activity, detected by the RC-135. That, in turn, would raise questions about what threat calls--if any--were issued by either platform in the moments leading up to the shootdown.

There are also unanswered questions on the ground. There was never any confirmation that Speicher (then a Lieutenant Commander) ejected from his aircraft. But satellite imagery of the crash site showed the pilot's escape and evasion (E&E) sign carved into the desert floor.

For obvious reasons, Speicher did not carry a written copy of that information on his person. The presence of the E&E sign suggests that the pilot ejected from his jet and lived long enough to scratch the information into the terrain--a process that would take several minutes. There is also the matter of Speicher's flight suit, found intact at the crash site. That discovery is also inconsistent with claims that he never ejected from the F/A-18. It's also worth noting that the ejection seat from the aircraft has not been recovered.

Bedouins who (reportedly) buried the body of the Navy pilot claim that he was dead when they arrived at the crash site. But how he died--or who killed him--has not been revealed.

Confirmation of Speicher's fate provides some degree of closure for his family, which has waited decades for answers. But the Pentagon still owes more answers to his survivors. We can only hope that forensic evidence from the crash site--and the debrief of Iraqi sources--will shed more light on what happened to Captain Speicher after his jet was shot down.

Unclassified excerpts from a 2001 Intelligence Community assessment of the Speicher case offer the following conclusions:

(1) The Iraqis "expertly searched" the crash site one month before a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the location in December, 1995. They excavated the cockpit area of the wreckage and removed all significant debris.

(2) Analysis of the wreckage by US Navy experts concluded that LCDR Speicher initiated the ejection sequence, jettisoned the canopy, and likely ejected from the stricken aircraft prior to the crash. The canopy was located near the crash site; the ejection seat could not be found.

(3) US Navy investigators concluded that the pilot was not incapacitated by the initial incident. Flight surgeons and aircraft life support systems experts believe LCDR Speicher would have had at least 85 to 90 percent chance of surviving (with second-degree burns to exposed skin) the resultant flash heat and fire and aerodynamic forces of the initial impact that brought down his aircraft.

(4) We do not know if LCDR Speicher survived the ejection sequence or subsequent landing, but the lack of crash-site evidence of LCDR Speicher's death, US Navy statistical data associated with F/A 18 incidents, and the condition of the returned flight suit suggest that he probably survived the crash of his F/A-18.

Clearly, there is a high probability that Scott Speicher successfully ejected from his aircraft and was alive when he reached the ground. Confirmation of that E&E letter indicates that he was in good enough shape to scratch that symbol into the ground--a process that cannot be completed in a matter of seconds. Indeed, the presence of the evasion sign suggests that Speicher saw no signs of the enemy when he landed, and felt he had enough time to leave the letter as a clue for rescuers. But Captain Speicher died in the minutes that followed. The circumstances surrounding his demise demand clarification.

1 comment:

Susan Katz Keating said...

Excellent post and analysis. Many thanks for this.