Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The 20th Anniversary of the Attack on the USS Stark (FFG-31)

The USS Stark (FFG-31) was an Oliver Hazard Perry Class guided-missile frigate and was named after Admiral Harold Stark (1880-1972), who became famous for his service during World War II. The Stark was commissioned on October 23, 1982.

In 1980 war erupted between Iran and Iraq, endangering the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. By 1984, both sides were attacking oil tankers bound for each other’s ports, making the Persian Gulf a very dangerous part of the world. Even tankers steaming toward neutral countries in the area, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were getting hit in the crossfire of this new “Tanker War.” President Ronald Reagan understood that if the sea-lanes to major oil-producing countries in the area were closed as a result of this conflict, it would have dire consequences for the world’s economy. To prevent this from happening, he ordered US warships into the Persian Gulf to protect and escort US-flagged oil tankers bound for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. US Naval warships also were meant to discourage the Soviet Navy from moving into the area and trying to influence the outcome of the war.

The Stark was deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1984 and then was sent back in 1987. Shortly after 9:00 PM on May 17, 1987, an Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet fired two Exocet sea-skimming missiles at the Stark (the pilot later claimed that he had mistaken the American frigate for an Iranian oil tanker). Although the Iraqi jet was spotted on the Stark’s radar, the commanding officer of the ship, Captain Glenn Brindel, 43, was not aware that the Iraqi plane had just fired its missiles. Captain Brindel did not think it was strange that an Iraqi jet was in the area because both Iraqi and Iranian planes patrolled the Persian Gulf regularly. In fact, earlier that same day Iraqi jets fired missiles at a Cypriot tanker, causing serious damage to the ship. Two attempts were made to contact the Iraqi pilot by radio, with the Stark identifying itself as a US Navy warship. But there was no reply from the Iraqi pilot. Then the radar operators on board the Stark noticed that the jet had suddenly veered away from the ship, apparently heading for home. The jet was indeed heading for home, but the two Exocet missiles were hurtling toward the Stark.

None of the defensive weapons on board the Stark fired at the incoming missiles, including the much-vaunted Phalanx Close In Weapons System (CIWS), which was supposed to protect the ship against sea-skimming anti-ship missiles. The Phalanx was apparently in a “standby” mode and no orders were given to fire any anti-aircraft missiles at the Iraqi jet. The first hint that the Stark was in serious trouble came when a lookout spotted the missiles heading toward the ship, traveling at roughly the speed of sound and flying only 12 feet above the waves.

A few seconds later the first missile smashed into the port side of the frigate, tearing a 10-by-15 foot hole in the Stark’s steel hull. It plowed through the crew’s quarters, the post office, and the ship’s store. Fortunately, the missile’s warhead failed to explode. The missile did, however, spew burning rocket propellant along its path of destruction, causing a major fire that incinerated the ship’s combat information center and disabled its electrical systems. The second missile also hit on the port side near the bridge; only this time the missile’s warhead blew up on contact, destroying a large section of the frigate’s superstructure.

The fires burned throughout the night. The Stark started listing as water poured into the ship. Out of a crew of 226 men, 37 were killed and 21 were injured. Because most of the ship’s electrical systems were out, a crewman sent a distress signal using a handheld radio that was picked up by a US destroyer steaming nearby. Soon tugs and other US warships were racing to assist the damaged frigate. The massive fires were eventually brought under control through the heroic efforts of the Stark’s crew, a truly remarkable achievement considering the amount of structural damage that was sustained by the ship. Judging by the damage caused by the explosion of the second rocket, it also seems doubtful that the Stark would have survived if the warhead on the first rocket had detonated. The Stark was towed to Bahrain where temporary repairs were made and then sent to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, where more extensive work could be done on the battered frigate. Although it would eventually cost $142 million to rebuild the ship, the Stark proved that a relatively small warship could take a lot of punishment and still stay afloat.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein apologized for the “unintentional” incident and promised to pay compensation to the families of the 37 dead crewmembers (which he eventually did). Hussein also agreed to pay reparations for damages to the frigate (which he never did). Did Iraq really mistake the Stark for an Iranian-bound oil tanker? Maybe, but the attack could have been a signal to the United States not to interfere in the war. The Reagan administration accepted Iraq’s apology because it didn’t want the incident to degenerate into an open conflict with Iraq, which the United States saw as a useful counterbalance to Iran. As for Captain Brindel, he was relieved of duty and later forced to retire from the Navy. The US Navy determined that the Captain did not take proper defensive measures once a potentially hostile Iraqi warplane appeared on his ship’s radar screen.

Throughout the 1990s the Stark was an active member of the US fleet. However, the ship was prematurely decommissioned on May 7, 1999, due to the downsizing of the US fleet. It was then scrapped after only 17 years of service (warships of this type have a potential lifespan of approximately 30 years). This week’s anniversary of the attack on the Stark is a reminder of how much and how little has changed in the Persian Gulf.


Figure 1: The USS Stark conducting sea trials in July of 1982.

Figures 2 and 3: Two different views of the Stark showing the damage that was done by the two Iraqi Exocet missiles. The ship was hit on the evening on May 17, 1987, and these pictures were taken the following morning.

Figure 4: The USS Stark being towed to Bahrain for repairs.