Human error blamed for US friendly fire tragedy

A ROUTINE computer check during a change of watch appears to have led to the latest 'friendly fire' tragedy in which the United States aircraft carrier Saratoga fired two missiles at a Turkish destroyer. The destroyer's commanding officer and four crewmen were killed and 15 badly hurt when one of the Sea Sparrow missiles slammed into the bridge of the destroyer Muavenet at 11 minutes past midnight on Thursday in the Aegean Sea.

The ships were involved in Nato's Display Determination '92 war games, along with the Royal Navy frigate HMS Andromeda, but no missile firing had been planned until next week.

US officials have apologised, three admirals have been appointed to investigate and the Turkish government has accepted it was an accident. But a retired Turkish naval officer, Nihat Topuz, voiced the suspicions of many compatriots when he suggested the Muavenet may have been targeted by an anti-Turkish US crew member. 'The ethnic background of those in the fire control room of the US carrier should be carefully checked,' Mr Topuz said. 'They might be Armenians or Greeks.'

Turkey is in dispute with Greece over Aegean territorial waters and Cyprus, while Armenian nationalists have previously launched attacks on Turks.

British defence experts, however, believe a human error during a shift change led to the launching of the two 12ft Sea Sparrows, relatively unsophisticated weapons that cannot be stopped once fired. They are meant to shoot down attacking planes. Once launched, it was 'sheer bad luck' one of the missiles hit the Muavenet, steaming three miles away, the experts say.

'The Saratoga had previously been on war stations in the Adriatic, at tip-top readiness for any air or sea attack from the Serbs. So all the missiles on board would have been live,' said Paul Beaver of Jane's Defence Weekly. 'Just after midnight, they would just have changed the watch. That means a routine 'user systems check' of weapons systems.

'The check is to ensure the surveillance radar is talking to the fire control computer, and along the chain to the launcher and seeker-head. But you should have the manual disabling systems in place, to prevent launching. It's a matter of pressing a button.'

Most British defence experts gave the Americans the benefit of the doubt. 'Because of the size of the US Navy, such accidents are statisticaly more likely,' said Richard Sharp, Editor of Jane's Fighting Ships. But one expert, who preferred not to be named, was less generous. 'The Royal Navy is very wary of exercising with the Americans. They have a knack of doing this,' he said.

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