The USS Saratoga inexplicably fired two Sea Sparrow missiles, normally used to shoot down aircraft, at the Turkish destroyer Muavenet during Nato's 'Display Determination '92' war games in the Aegean Sea late on Thursday.
One missile blasted a hole in the destroyer's bridge, killing the five and wounding 15 crewmen, some seriously. The second appears to have fallen into the sea. The vessels were about three miles apart, 80 miles west of Izmir.
Defence experts believe junior officers on the carrier may have been under stress after a long spell at sea during which they were primed for a possible conflict with Iraq. In the heat of a realistic mock-up, a rating in charge of the fire control console may have pressed the button to launch the Sea Sparrows instead of simply tracking the 'enemy'.
Sensing no real target after their release, the Sea Sparrows, because they are not fully guided 'fire and forget' weapons, would have headed for the nearest target, in this case the Turkish vessel.
'These missiles have only a semi-active homing system,' said Paul Beaver, of Jane's Defence Weekly. 'You give them their launch parameters, but they find the rest of the way themselves. Once the human errors were made, it could have been a radio, or a telephone on the Turkish ship's bridge that caused them to home in. The weapons console is not unlike a desk computer, with the fire button covered by a plastic shield. It is not inconceivable that they were doing a tracking exercise and someone forgot to stop.
'Some of these exercises can be pretty tense and the man in control of the button would only have been a rating. The missiles are always armed but live firing exercises were not due to start until next week.'
US and Nato officers, and the US administration, were quick to apologise to the Turks, who left no doubt they considered the firing a tragic accident. But it revived memories of other 'friendly fire' incidents and accidents involving US forces, notably the US air force attack on British troops in the Gulf war and the shooting down of an Iranian commercial airliner by the USS Vincennes in the Gulf in 1988.