USS Stark Attack By The Iraqi Airforce

USS Stark Attack By The Iraqi Airforce

USS Stark Attack By The Iraqi Airforce On 17 March 1987, as the U.S. Navy focused on the possibility of outright conflict with Iran. The frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) was hit by two Exocet missiles launched by an Iraqi Mirage F-1EQ5, killing 37 U.S. Sailors and heavily damaging the ship.

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Despite intelligence warnings that the Iraqi ship strikes were occurring further south. Furthermore, despite a dangerous encounter between USS Coontz (DDG-40) and an Iraqi Mirage F-1 in the same vicinity. Lastly, despite operating only a few miles from the declared exclusion zone, Stark continued in Condition IV (peacetime steaming).

Much of the crew focused on an engineering inspection the next day.

The U.S. Air Force E-3A AWACs aircraft detected and reported the Iraqi aircraft when it was still 200 miles from Stark.

It was heading south on a standard attack profile.

Except the pilot seemed to be having difficulty maintaining steady altitude.

This contact was reported to Stark’s skipper, Captain Glenn Brindel, who asked to be informed if the aircraft developed into a threat.

But Captain Brindel was not on the bridge for the rest of the approach.

At a range of 70 miles, Stark’s own radar picked up the Iraqi aircraft, as well as its Cyrano IV radar in search mode.

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Cyrano IV

As the aircraft drew closer, with a projected CPA of only a few miles. The SPS-49 radar operator recommended to the TAO (tactical action officer) to issue the standard radio warning to the aircraft that it was approaching a U.S. Navy vessel and risked being fired upon.

The TAO opted to wait.

At 2105, the Iraqi jet reached its turn point (further south than almost all previous attacks.)

Turned toward Stark and began an accelerated descent.

At 2107, the Iraqi jet fired an Exocet at a range of 22 miles from Stark while the frigate detected the Cyrano IV in target mode. At 2108, Stark issued a radio warning via military distress frequency. About the same time the aircraft launched a second Exocet at a range of 15.5 miles. The aircraft turned away without acknowledging the radio call.

Stark’s radar did not detect the missile launches.

The first warning of an inbound missile came from the forward lookout.

On board Stark, the captain was called when the plane changed course, but could not be immediately located.

The CIWS (close-in weapon system) operator was in the head. Unbeknownst to the combat information center watch officer (CICWO) or TAO, although it wouldn’t have made much difference since the CIWS was masked and not ready.

The SRBOC (chaff) launchers were not ready.

Two Mark 36 Mod 7 Super Rapid Bloom Off-board Chaff (SRBOC) system launchers aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin during Operation Desert Storm.

The weapons control console was not manned, since the CICWO was covering both positions on the watch bill, and the executive officer was actually sitting in the WCO’s chair, waiting to talk to the TAO about some administrative manner. The ship did not maneuver to bring the 76-mm gun to bear, and no weapons were fired or other defensive measures taken.

The first missile penetrated Stark’s port side below the bridge. The missile warhead did not detonate, but the missile’s fuel ignited (and because of the relative short range of the shot, there was an ample supply) and flaming fuel sprayed throughout the crews’ quarters and other interior spaces. The second missile impacted a few feet from the first and did detonate. The two missiles killed 29 of Stark’s crew outright and another eight would die of their wounds and burns, with another 21 wounded.

Stark listing following two hits by Exocet missiles.
Exocet AM39 P1220892-detoured.jpg
Exocet AM-39 anti-ship missile (from MBDA) under a Dassault Rafale. Detoured from Image:Exocet AM39 P1220892.jpg
Unlike the slow reaction by the CIC to the developing threat.

Stark’s damage-control effort was nothing short of heroic. Despite the heavy casualties and loss of key personnel (due partly to damage to the chief’s quarters,) Stark’s crew battled the flames, some of which were burning at great intensity (3,500 degrees) and with great ingenuity corrected a severe list that developed due to the firefighting water. Once the fires were out, Stark was able to return to Bahrain under her own power.

Captain Brindel did order the starboard side flooded. Which kept the hole on the hull’s port side above water. Which in turn helped prevent the Stark from sinking.

A view of external damage to the port side.

Iraq apologized for the attack, claiming it was an accident. Although they also incorrectly initially claimed that the Stark was operating in the declared exclusion zone.

An accident waiting to happen due to continual Iraqi negligence in positively identifying targets before shooting.

But we will never know for sure.

The Iraqis never identified or produced the pilot during subsequent investigations. But reports that he was executed are probably not true.

Saddam Hussein viewed the U.S. acceptance of Iraq’s apology with no further action to be a sign of U.S. weakness.

That the Iraqi aircraft fired two missiles caused extensive debate and speculation at senior U.S. Navy levels, (I was a CNO intelligence briefer at the time) Because the Mirage F-1EQ5 variant sold to the Iraqis by the French was only equipped to carry one.

This led to the theory that the attack was actually carried out by a Dassault Falcon 50.

A multi-engine, multi-seat aircraft used as a trainer by the Iraqis, which had Cyrano IV radar and could carry more than one Exocet.

Armee de l'Air - Dassault Falcon 50.jpg
Dassault Falcon 50

Nevertheless, the Iraqis were also capable of considerable ingenuity and had modified an F-1 to carry two missiles. And this was the first such attempt (the pilot’s unfamiliarity with carrying two missile was presumably why he was all over the sky on the way down).

The Falcon 50 had sufficient range to reach as far as the Red Sea, and so was viewed as a potential long-range threat during Desert Storm, contributing (along with lack of adequate tanking) to holding back significant numbers of U.S. Navy fighters for fleet air defense during Desert Storm.

On the American side, the Navy board of inquiry recommended that both Captain Brindel and the TAO, Lieutenant Basil Moncrief, be brought up for court-martial.

Neither was tried. But both received a letter of reprimand via non-judicial punishment (NJP) from Admiral Frank Kelso, commander in chief, Atlantic Fleet, and left the Navy early. 

Stark’s executive officer was also relieved for cause and received a letter of admonition. Had it not been for the commanding and executive officers’ extraordinary actions in saving their ship, the punishment might have been more severe.

USS Stark Attack By The Iraqi Airforce Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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USS Stark Attack By The Iraqi Airforce

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