Guest Comment on National Review Online

Scott Speicher, Prisoner of War

How a Navy pilot wound up listed as killed in action during the Gulf War and why he may still be alive.

By Cmdr. Robert E. Stumpf, USN (Ret.), who served as a carrier air-wing strike leader throughout Desert Storm and commanded a Fleet F/A-18 Squadron and the Blue Angels.

March 19, 2002 8:30 a.m.

Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher, U. S. Navy, was shot down over Iraq in his F/A-18 Hornet fighter from the USS Saratoga on January 17, 1991, the first night of Desert Storm. He was declared killed in action and memorialized in Arlington National Cemetery. Ten years later, in light of abundant evidence belying his death, an indolent U.S. government reclassified him as missing in action. Then, as now, many would argue that his status more accurately should be prisoner of war. Is there evidence of his death? On the dark night he was shot down, other pilots on the same mission noted a bright flash and a fireball in the sky where he should have been while en route to the targets. When he did not report in after the mission, his flight leader realized Speicher had gone down, but not necessarily that he was killed. Others on the mission assumed that he had safely ejected and was on the ground evading the enemy, or worse, had been captured. The possibility that he had been killed in the explosion was certainly there, but it was remote. The likelihood of his survival from the shoot down is related to how he was shot down.

Indeed, the circumstances of the shoot down are the first of many controversial issues that have surrounded the Speicher story from the very beginning. Initially the government's position was that he had been downed by a surface-to-air missile. Granted, many SAMs were launched in the general vicinity during the time of the mission. But in the exact area where Speicher was hit, U.S. intelligence was reporting no missile batteries, particularly of the type that would have reached up to Speicher's altitude near 30,000 feet. Then why would the government choose to report it as a SAM kill? In the minutes leading up to the shoot down, other pilots in the strike group, perhaps Speicher himself, obtained radar contact on an Iraqi fighter closing the group. One American pilot maneuvered for and acquired a weapons solution on the enemy fighter. In accordance with U. S. rules of engagement then in effect, this pilot requested clearance to fire from the AWACS command and control, while the two opposing fighters were approaching each other at better than Mach 2. At such speeds and with the particular geometry of this intercept, the weapons-launch window was open for only seconds. The clearance to fire was never given, the launch window closed, and the Iraqi fighter got away. Those most familiar with the engagement are convinced that this Iraqi fighter went from hunted to hunter, and moments later downed Speicher's aircraft with an air-to-air missile.

Could Speicher have survived a missile kill on his aircraft? The warhead on an air-to-air missile is generally smaller than that on a SAM, especially a large, longer range SAM. So an air-to-air kill is generally more survivable for the pilot. Further, the F/A-18 is equipped with an excellent ejection seat with an 85 to 90 percent survival rate overall. Could it be that in the confusion of the first night's battle, with Speicher's fate unclear, someone in the chain of command was embarrassed by the failure of U.S. command and control in this engagement? Was it more convenient to declare this a SAM kill to avoid the scrutiny of the failure of airborne command and control? Were the rules of engagement inadequate? Was there an inter-service problem with the Air Force AWACS failing to give a Navy fighter clearance to fire?

If those questions are uncomfortable to ponder, consider this: In the hours following the battle, was it more convenient to declare Speicher KIA rather than deal with the embarrassment of having one of our fighter pilots in Iraqi custody after being on the losing end of an air-to-air engagement? Why did the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff go on national television and pronounce Speicher killed only hours after the engagement and without any definitive proof? Maybe it was simply an innocent faux pas rather than something more sinister, but since it has not been explained, all these questions cannot be discounted.

Mistakes Were Made

Extending the logic of the simple-mistake theory, it is relatively easy to deduce the ineptitude of the decision making that followed. As we have seen time and time again in bureaucratic Washington, once you make a mistake, you never admit it. Instead you try to control subsequent events that will make your error look less unwise. Central Command, in charge of the Gulf War, never launched a combat search-and-rescue mission for Speicher despite having a robust combat search and rescue force in theater, armed and ready. Its primary mission was to retrieve downed aviators under combat conditions. One may imagine the discussion at CENTCOM on whether to launch the combat search and rescue or not: "SECDEF said he was KIA, so why go look for him? We never got a distress call from the pilot's survival radio. We don't know the exact location of the wreckage."

These points were probably all considered and led to the decision not to launch the mission. But they are all problematic. First, SECDEF said on national television that Speicher had been killed. But this actually was not a formal declaration of status. In fact, Speicher was listed as MIA a few days later. It wasn't until May 1991 that he was declared killed in action. It is true that Speicher did not make a radio call and that such radio communication is very important to the success of a search and rescue mission. Some speculate that Speicher lost his survival radio in the ejection. Others say that he was too badly injured to operate the radio, or that the radio had failed. The point is that radio communication is not absolutely essential in finding a downed pilot, especially in barren terrain with good visibility, and especially if the SAR forces know where to look. There is evidence that Speicher created a visual signal in the desert for use by search-and-rescue forces, although it is likely that CENTCOM never assigned any reconnaissance forces or requested national assets to look for Speicher's wreckage. Which leads to the last point.

Within 24 hours of the shoot down, pilots on the Saratoga calculated exactly where they had seen Speicher's fireball by comparing notes and reviewing data from aircraft and voice recorders. This information was relayed up the chain of command. Years later, when the wreckage was actually located, it was in the precise spot they had identified.

Speicher's Status

At the conclusion of hostilities, after a spectacular American victory, the U. S. conducted a prisoner exchange with Iraq. Was Speicher's name not on the list of those to be returned? If he was missing in action, might not there be a possibility he was captured? Even if he were suspected dead, what would have been the downside of demanding him back, just in case we were wrong? Perhaps the U.S. was reluctant to be forceful in its demand for Speicher's release because it was confused regarding his status, and well aware that Saddam, too, saw SECDEF's declaration on television. Americans aren't the only ones who watch CNN. Further, there was no motivation for Saddam to release Speicher, given the weakness of U.S. demands.

In 1994, the U. S. government again had the opportunity to send in a covert mission, this time to examine the wreckage of Speicher's aircraft found by a friendly Arab military officer. Again, the military leadership determined it was too risky, in the words of then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili, to retrieve "old bones." Was Shali, a highly decorated and respected soldier, getting marching orders from someone higher in the administration? Surely this decision to not launch a covert mission was inconsistent with his military background. Did he really consider it too risky? In remote territory in the middle of Iraq under airspace controlled by the U. S. led coalition? Instead the U. S. opted to utilize diplomatic channels, tipping its hand to the Iraqis and effectively destroying the opportunity to evaluate an undisturbed crash site. Still, there was enough evidence conclusively to determine that Speicher indeed ejected from his stricken aircraft and probably survived. After examining the physical evidence, nothing indicated that Speicher was dead. The findings were exposed in a 1995 New York Times article, which in turn spawned the interest of CBS News. The ensuing 60 Minutes II piece, first run in May 2000, finally gave Speicher's fate national attention.

Inside the Pentagon, lower-ranking officers and former officers continued to ask difficult questions, effectively keeping the issue alive, in spite of the leadership's seeming preference to have it just go away. Credible reports of eyewitnesses to Speicher's incarceration in Baghdad were coming to light. A few members of Congress, led by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, began to exert pressure on the administration. Finally, on the tenth anniversary of Speicher's shoot down, the government relented and changed his status back to MIA. It is unfortunate that this action was initiated by the media and Speicher's contemporaries and not by the military leadership. In fact, it is probably fair to say that without these external stimuli, Speicher would still be KIA. As would the issue.

Thinking Like a Madman

Today, the issue again is on the front burner, thanks this time to several newspaper articles. In January 2002 the Virginian Pilot ran a six-part series. These were followed by articles just last week in the Washington Times and the Chicago Tribune that report credible eyewitness accounts of Speicher being alive as recently as September 2001 when he was reportedly moved to a military facility following the 9/11 attacks. These eyewitness accounts were reported as being corroborated by British and Dutch intelligence sources. Still, many are convinced that all the growing evidence lacks veracity, that if Speicher somehow had survived, Saddam would have done away with him by now. But from Saddam's perspective, why kill him?

Saddam might think: Is he not worth more alive than dead? He is my trophy. An American pilot even more valuable than my Kuwaiti, Iranian, and Israeli trophies that I have been keeping from wars much longer ago than the "mother of all wars." I will keep him alive until I find the best use for him. If I can make him break, he will be worth even more.

For Americans, it is difficult to think like an Iraqi, much less a clever madman like Saddam. But it is clear that Saddam strategizes in terms of centuries. Some Iraq experts are convinced that Saddam fancies himself a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar reliving the glory days of ancient Babylon. A mere eleven years is nothing in that context.

From January 1991 until early last year, U. S. leadership consistently let Scott Speicher down. In fact they broke their contract with Speicher and with every American war fighter who may fall into enemy hands in any future conflict. In the minds of those who fight our nation's battles and who live and die by the Code of Conduct, who in fact are required to uphold the Code of Conduct, those decisions broke a sacred trust. The incredible success of the American armed forces throughout our history has been due in large measure to the quality and character of its individual soldiers and their fervent belief in leadership. A most important aspect of that trust is that they will not be left behind, an essential element of the Code of Conduct.

We have left Scott Speicher behind. Many who now wear or once wore the uniform are ashamed that he may have been abandoned in an Iraqi prison for eleven years. Alone. With no indication that his country was doing anything to get him back. Under such conditions, it is difficult to imagine anyone being able to maintain his physical and mental health.

Fortunately, those who know Scott Speicher best know that if anybody could do it, it would be he. When he left the ship on January 16, 1991, he was strong, fit, and vigorous. He was smart and knew his job, in the airplane, as well as in survival, evasion and POW situations. Most importantly, he had strong faith - in his comrades, in his family, in God. And faith in the United States of America.

It is time to renew our obligation to Scott Speicher and all our armed forces. September 11 and the war on terrorism may have provided the impetus and the opportunity. While the administration formulates its Iraq policy in the context of this global war, Speicher's return should be an integral part of it. If Scott himself could be a part of that strategy session he, in his humility, would probably say, don't risk the bigger objective for just me. But Scott Speicher in many ways represents that objective - the U. S. government's contract with its soldiers, and its citizens.

Return to:

Home Loss of Trust and Confidence