On May 17, 1987, the guided missile frigate USS Stark was hit by a pair of French Made Exocet Missiles fired from a French made Dassault 50 Business jet (code-named Suzanna) modified with the nose radar of a Mirage F1 and guidance systems for those combat proven anti-ship weapons. Initially thought to be a Mirage F1EQ, this experimental missile firing platform was modified to provide a rapid anti shipping capability for the IrAF during the latter stages of its war with Iran. During this attack 37 US Navy sailors were killed, while the Stark’s anti-aircraft radar systems and anti-air Standard Missile Battery was unable to respond.
The Stark apparently did hail the unknown incoming aircraft as it was inbound, but the aircraft did not respond. Stark was in international waters off Saudi Arabia, though her actual location has been subsequently shown to be elsewhere, and a bit closer to Iranian waters. In an echo on the attack on HMS Sheffield, the first missile which struck Stark did not detonate, while the second managed to cause severe damage to the Stark’s Bridge structure and Combat Information Center.
Stark was saved due to the damage control efforts of her crew, with the ship’s captain, Glen Brindel, ordering counter flooding to avoid the ship capsizing. The ship’s radars were unable to lock on and engage the aircraft with her Standard Missile Battery. It can clearly be seen that while operating in the murky twilight between War and Peace, the ship was certainly in Harm’s way.
Yet the ongoing Tanker War continued, as the United States along with its Gulf State Allies continued to support Iraq in its effort to “contain” the Iranian Revolution. The United States Navy Court Martialed Captain Brindel, and he and his senior Anti Air officer accepted the findings of their Courts Martial. Brindel retired as a Commander (O-5) one grade below the rank of Captain (O-6) which he held during his command, while his fire control officer subsequently resigned from the Navy.
The politics of why the Stark was operating in hostile waters can be endlessly debated, but at the time the United States was supporting Iraq in its war against Iran, while also secretly providing just enough spare parts for Iran to keep its American made weapons systems functional. In a way, as Kissinger was said to have uttered in the video link below, “the best outcome would be for BOTH sides to lose.”
In a sense both sides did. World oil prices were low in spite of the instability in the Gulf, as both Iran and Iraq scrambled to use their oil revenue to finance their respective War efforts. This drove the price of oil down despite fact both nations actively attacked the oil supplies of the other. Iraq itself obtained billions in loans from Gulf States worried at the possibility of Iran exporting their revolution to their territories. The United States “accepted” Iraq’s apology though they did find the Iraqi Government responsible for the attack.
Iraq’s position as adversary to Iran was too critical to allow a rift to form between the US and Iraq, and the US Navy directly intervened in Persian Gulf operations the following year in 1988. In July of that year the Aegis Guided Missile Cruiser Vincennes went what Naval wags termed “Robocruiser” and engaged an Iranian Airbus they mistook for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat, shooting it down with all its passenger and crew being lost.
At the time as a teenager and military brat, we speculated as to just how Iran had managed to keep their Tomcats flying. At that time a series of arrests were made against individuals supplying Tomcat spares to Iran. The Iran-Contra scandal also offered a glimpse into the secret spare parts pipeline established to keep Iran’s Air Force fighting. Later on, after subsequently reading Tom Cooper’s excellent research on the subject, we have the answer to questions related above as to just how this happened.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, we remember thinking back to the Stark incident, and upon seeing the press coverage demonizing a dictator who had been slapped on the wrist for an attack which killed 37 U.S. Sailors, we thought to Orwell’s 1984, and recalled the words which make up the masthead of this post. “Oceana Is At War with Eastasia….Oceana has always been at War with Eastasia.” For the crew and families of those lost in Stark, we offer our condolences and hope they may Rest in Peace, knowing the damage control efforts of their shipmates helped save the ship, and offers relevant lessons which may save lives in future conflicts.
It is interesting to compare and contrast the successful saving of the Stark through the excellent Damage control efforts of her crew with the recent fate of the Russian Guided Missile Cruiser Moskva, which was also hit by a pair of similarly sized missiles. During the 1980s we can clearly remember Defense “experts” lauding the heavy armament of Soviet Warships and contrasting them to the relatively light armament of USN designs. The HMS Sheffield suffered from a similar design flaw, with budget cuts forcing the design to carry a heavy armament on a hull shorter than later Batches of Type 22 Frigates.
As Moskva’s fate clearly shows, stuffing a warship with an ultra-heavy battery of explosive missiles isn’t necessarily conducive to a ship’s survival in combat. Stark was a mere Frigate, yet had enough built-in resiliency to survive an attack by a pair of missiles, while HMS Sheffield and RNS Moskva both were sunk by same. As many commentators have pointed out, Russian Damage control techniques are clearly a weakness of both the Soviet and Post-Soviet Russian Navy.
The link below is a brief documentary about the Dassault Falcon 50 used in the attack.
To end this, we also offer a final musical tribute, sang by the crew of Sheffield as they departed their former vessel aboard HMS Arrow.
We believe this is a song the world needs to hear more of right now.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and PA via Wikipedia
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