During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988, a low level parallel naval conflict in the Persian Gulf, known as the Tanker War, was waged where each side tried to sink as many of their adversary’s oil tankers as possible. Iran relied exclusively on tankers to export its oil which was its sole source of funding for the war. Iranian mines, and Revolutionary Guard small boat attacks and airstrikes forced Iraq to export most of its oil via pipelines to friendly Saudi Arabia. However, Iran expanded its attacks to neutral flagged ships of those countries friendly to Iraq, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, to intercept Iraq’s oil. Along with the British and French, the US deployed a Mid-East Task Force to the Persian Gulf to protect neutral flagged ships from both Iranian and Iraqi attacks.
On 17 May 1987, a US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, USS Stark FFG-31, sailed on a routine patrol in the Persian Gulf just outside of Iraq’s declared war zone, as part of the Mid-East Task Force. About 1900 that night (7 pm) a joint US-Saudi Arabian E-3C Sentry aircraft acquired what it thought was a French made Iraqi F-1 Mirage but it was actually a militarized business jet converted into a long range reconnaissance plane and armed with several air to surface missiles. The Sentry passed the contact off to the USS Stark at 2055. The plane was more than 200 miles out.
The Stark knew about the incoming aircraft for fifty minutes at that point, flipped on her air search radar, and belatedly acquired the aircraft after wrestling with several false reports of a surface contact nearby. (Turning on a powerful radar like the SPS-49 makes the ship a big target for surface to surface missiles.) Just before that, the electronic warfare officer (EWO) went to get a cup of coffee. The Stark’s tactical action officer (TAO) in the combat information center (CIC) ordered the comms duty officer (the acronym for that is insane) to wait on hailing the approaching aircraft as it looked as if the plane would pass benignly by. As the unidentified aircraft continued to approach, the TAO ordered the weapons control officer (WCS) to go find the EWO because his console controlled the chaff (“chaff” are small metal strips launched into the air to confuse incoming radar lock missiles) and was one of the only two stations in the CIC where an incoming threat could be tracked and a weapon assigned (guess where the other one was…). This action left both the EWO and WCS stations vacant, though the ship’s executive officer did enter the CIC on administrative business, and occupied the WCS’ station to observe the TAO while he waited.
At 2104, the TAO gave permission to the comms duty officer to hail the aircraft, presumably because the XO was watching. The aircraft did not respond, and turned slightly toward the Stark to further close the distance, though this was missed by the air tracker watching the radar. At 2108, the Stark tried communicating with the aircraft again, which was 32 nautical miles out and well within range of known Iraqi and Iranian air to surface missiles, and again received no response.
As the Stark was futilely trying to contact the aircraft a second time, the Iraqi pilot launched his first French made Exocet missile. After another minute inputting data into the fire control and locking on a second missile, he launched another Exocet. He was less than twelve miles out.
The Exocet (French for “Flying Fish”) flew across the Persian Gulf three meters above the water at nearly Mach one. As “sea-skimming” missiles, they were never picked up by the air-search radar, and the only stations with the capability to detect the incoming threat were vacant with one’s operator getting coffee, and the other looking for him.
At 2109, the TAO ordered a young ensign to occupy the WCS’s console to activate the weapon systems and the fire control radar. This included a young sailor running topside to manually turn on the chaff launcher, which was completed and probably saved the sailor’s life. As the young ensign jockeyed with the intimidating executive officer at the WCS station, a lookout topside using a pair of binoculars and Mark 1 Eyeballs spotted a white glow on the horizon and spoke into his mic “Missile Inbound Missile Inbound”. The first Exocet struck the USS Stark four seconds later.
It penetrated the hull just below the CIC but didn’t explode. Its remaining fuel spread fires throughout its path into the ship, particularly in the petty officers quarters, where it came to lie. The Stark’s luck however would not repeat: 30 seconds later, the same lookout said, “inbound missile, port side… all hands brace for shock!”; the second missile struck eight feet forward from the initial hit, and exploded. 29 sailors were killed instantly, many in their sleep or burned to death shortly thereafter. Eight died later of their wounds or were lost at sea. Twenty more were wounded.
From aircraft acquisition to detonation was just 14 minutes. From the first hail to detonation was less than four minutes.
The Stark never fired any of her weapons. The Perry class frigates are primarily surface combatants or escorts conducting anti-submarine warfare, activities for which they are admirably equipped. They rely on other ships, or preferably planes, for wide area anti-aircraft coverage. They possess point air defense weapons i.e. self-protection only, in the form of the 20mm Phalanx CIWS (Close In Weapons System, a giant Gatling gun) for just such incoming threats. However, the system was down with parts on order, and the crew mistakenly believed they couldn’t calibrate the auxiliary targeting system except in an approved gunnery area. The CIWS was never activated and remained on “stand-by mode”, even though it was operational. Furthermore, there was confusion as per the rules of engagement/readiness condition – The CIC crew believed they could not fire unless fired upon, which was not the case. They could have defended themselves any time after the plane didn’t respond to queries and continued to approach. (Condition III Yellow vs Condition III White, or for US Army folks, roughly the difference between Yellow Tight and White Hold).
If the first missile would have exploded, the USS Stark would have been a catastrophic loss. As it was, “only” a 10’ by 13’ flaming hole was bored into the ship. The fires created by the missiles destroyed the storesroom, the berths, the small postal room, and eventually the CIC. The damage created a severe list which was counteracted by reverse flooding to keep the hole above the waterline. However, the essentially Second World War damage control techniques barely kept the 3000 degree fires and list from sinking the ship. The fires were twice as hot as needed to melt the bulkheads. One third of the crew was incapacitated, and there were simply too many tasks needed to be done. Furthermore, the water used to fight the fires threatened to capsize the ship despite the counter flooding. This fate was avoided by the time consuming and difficult process of sledgehammering holes in the aluminum bulkheads to redistribute the water. The Stark had no modern rescue equipment such as cutting torches or Jaws-of-Life. Only the timely arrival of the destroyer USS Waddel several hours later prevented the exhausted and wounded crew from succumbing to the list and flames. The Stark was further aided by the USS Conyngham who departed Bahrain with only a third of her crew: the rest were on shore leave and couldn’t be found. The fires raged for 24 hours. It was only the combined effort, ingenuity, and perseverance of the three crews that saved the Stark. The next day they managed to escort the stricken ship back to port.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government initially blamed the US for violating the declared war zone, but when confronted by conclusive evidence to the contrary, apologized for mistaking the Stark for an Iranian tanker. The attack on the USS Stark was the first incident in the increasingly larger American involvement in the Tanker War.