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The Attack on USS Stark at 30

USS Stark (FFG-31) on May 18, 1987. US Navy

On May 17, 1987, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) was on patrol when it was struck by two Iraqi Exocet missiles in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War.

The missiles were fired from an Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1 by a pilot who thought the U.S. frigate was an Iranian tanker.

“The first missile punched through the hull near the port bridge wing, eight feet above the waterline. It bored a flaming hole through berthing spaces, the post office, and the ship’s store, spewing rocket propellant along its path. Burning at 3,500 degrees, the weapon ground to a halt in a corner of the chiefs’ quarters, and failed to explode,” wrote Brad Peniston in his book No Higher Honor from the Naval institute Press.

“The second missile, which hit five feet farther forward, detonated as designed. The fire burned for almost a day, incinerating the crew’s quarters, the radar room, and the combat information center.”

Thirty-seven sailors died as a result of the missile strikes and the ship was sidelined for repairs for more than a year.

The following are material from the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Insitute photo archives and oral histories on the Stark incident and its aftermath.

Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, USN
Commander Middle East Force from 1986 to 1988
Oral History Excerpt

Rear Admiral Harold J Bernsen

Rear Admiral Harold J Bernsen. US Navy Photo

Between the period of ’80 to ’85, there was relatively little activity at sea, as I recall. But that began to change as the Iraqis sensed that one way to put pressure on the Iranians was if they could curtail the flow of oil out of Iran onto the world market. Almost all of the Iranian export capacity was funneled through Kharg Island—not all of it but almost all of it—in the northern part of the Gulf, just to the east of the Shatt al-Arab. So the Iraqis began to concentrate on interrupting the flow of shipping that carried that oil from Kharg Island down the Gulf and out through the Strait of Hormuz to other world ports. They did this by attacking Iranian and other world shipping that was carrying Iranian crude. They did it primarily by attacking those ships in the so-called Iranian self‑proclaimed war zone, extending to the south from the coast of Iran and encompassing almost half of the Persian Gulf.

In retaliation for those attacks, the Iranians, in turn, had decided to attack ships also. But since the Iraqis did not have any ships in the Gulf, in the vicinity of the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, or in the Gulf of Oman, the only targets that the Iranians could strike were those which consisted of ships transiting the Gulf and the strait, in trade with the Gulf Arabs, all of whom by definition were allies or at least in one way or another in support of the Iraqis.

So you had in essence two quite different anti-shipping regimes, but regardless of the basic difference in the two, the overall result was the same: a Gulf that was confused, frightened, a war zone. There was not a great deal loss of life, but an awful lot of economic destruction, and a really confused and a rather perilous area, particularly if you were a commercial shipper…

We were sitting at dinner when the watch came down from the war room and informed me of a report from the Air Force AWACS that was flying out of Saudi Arabia. The report was that an Iraqi aircraft had been detected and was coming south out of Iraq. That was not unusual. I won’t say it was normal but almost normal.

Iraqi Mirage F1

They would come down from Baghdad and the airfields around Baghdad and skirt the western edge of the northern Gulf. Then at some point, which we surmised was a point where they detected on their air-to-surface radar a shipping contact, presumably Iranian, along the Iranian coast to the east, they would then turn east and launch a missile at that contact.

There was no identification procedure that was followed. It was simply a blind shot. The fact is on many occasions they actually hit. These were Exocet missiles, and they actually were able to strike the target. The Exocet is an extremely good missile, and the French had supplied the Iraqis with a good many of them, and they were practiced in their use.

The Stark Report
by Michael Vlahos
Proceedings, May 1988

Damage on USS Stark (FFG-31) following the May 17, 1987 attack. U.S. Naval Institute Archive

The Stark’s commanding officer. Captain Glenn R. Brindel was informed of the lraqi aircraft`s presence by at least 2005, when the aircraft was about 200 nautical miles away.

Lieutenant Basil E. Moncrief was on watch in the Stark‘s combat information center (CIC), serving as tacti­cal action officer (TAO). Captain Brindel stopped in the CIC at about 2015 and was reminded about the Iraqi air­craft.

On the bridge at 2055, Captain Brindel asked why there was no radar picture of the Iraqi aircraft. The CIC re­sponded by switching the SPS-49 air-search radar to the 80-mile mode. The aircraft was acquired 70 miles out at 2058.

Lieutenant Moncrief was informed that the aircraft would have a four-nautical-mile closest point of approach (CPA) at 2102. Also at 2102, the radar signature of the Mirage’s Cyrano-IV air-intercept radar was detected, anti for several seconds the radar locked on to the Stark. At 2103, the SPS-49 operator requested permission from Lieutenant Moncrief to transmit a standard warning to the F-1. Moncrief said, “No, wait.”

Two minutes later, at 2105, the F-1 turned toward the Stark at 32.5 nautical miles out. It was on a virtual con­stant bearing, decreasing range, but this move was missed by the Stark‘s CIC. The first missile was launched at 2107, 22.5 nautical miles from the Stark.

The forward lookout saw the missile launch, but it was first identified as a surface contact. Lieutenant Moncrief finally observed the F-1 course change at 2107. Captain Brindel was called, but could not be found.

The weapons control officer (WCO) console was manned, and at 2108 the Stark contacted the F-1 on the military air distress frequency, requesting identity. At that moment, however, the Iraqi pilot was firing his second Exocet. The electronic warfare technician at the SLQ-32 console heard the F-1’s Cyrano-IV again lock on to the Stark. The lock-on signal ceased after seven to ten sec­onds. Permission was given at this time to arm the super rapid blooming offboard chaff (SRBOC) launchers. A sec­ond warning was radioed to the F-1 at about 2108, and the Stark‘s Phalanx Gatling gun was placed in “standby mode.”

At 2109, the Stark locked on to the F-1 with her com­bined antenna system. The lookout reported an inbound missile to the CIC, but the report was not relayed to the TAO.

Lt. Art Conklin, USN
Stark’s damage control assistant.
‘We Gave a 110% and Saved the Stark’
Proceedings, Dec. 1988

US Naval Sea Systems Command Graphic

At approximately 2112, l heard the horrible sound of grinding metal and my first thought was that we had collided with another ship. I immediately opened my stateroom door and headed for Damage Control (DC) Central. Within a fraction of a second I knew we were in trouble. I smelled missile exhaust and heard over the 1MC, “inbound missile, port side… all hands brace for shock!” Then general quarters (GQ) sounded and I saw the crew move faster than they ever had before. The first missile had slammed into the ship under the port bridge wing, about eight feet above the waterline. It’s speed at impact was more than 600 miles per hour. The warhead did not explode, but the missile did deposit several hundred pounds of burning rocket propellant as it passed through passageways, berthing compartments, the barbershop, post office, and chief petty officer quarters. And although we did not know it at the time, the missile still had most of its fuel on board, since it had traveled only 22 miles from me launching aircraft to our ship.

The potent mix of the missile’s fuel and oxidizer resulted in fires hotter than 3,500° Fahrenheit that instantly ignited all combustibles and melted structural materials. This temperature was nearly double the 1,800° normally considered the upper limit in shipboard fires.

About 30 seconds later, the second missile struck the Stark eight feet forward of the first missile’s point of impact. It traveled only five feet into the skin of the ship and then exploded with a tremendous roar. Later analysis determined that the damage, while significant, was not as great as might have been expected because a large portion of the blast’s effect was vented away from the interior of the ship, creating a huge, gaping hole in the process. This reflects the results of the ship’s strong [Damage Control] preparation.

Within minutes, nearly one-fifth of the crew had been killed and many others had been overcome by smoke, bums, and shrapnel wounds. The remaining crewmembers had a monumental task ahead of them, yet they plunged ahead.

I witnessed countless acts of heroism throughout the night: Electronics Technician Third Class Wayne R. Weaver III sacrificed his own life to assist many crewmembers to safety from the primary missile blast zone. Seaman Mark R. Caoutte, despite severe burns, shrapnel wounds and the loss of one leg, continued to set Zebra in an area being consumed by fire. Gunner`s Mate Third Class Mark Samples risked his life for 12 hours, spraying cooling water inside the ship’s missile magazine. Had it exploded, the Stark would have gone to the bottom. Thanks to the intensive first-aid training given to the crew, Mess Management Specialist Second Class Francis Burke was directly responsible for resuscitating many smoke inhalation cases. Many other heroic acts were performed, but they all had a common thread: In each of these cases, the crewmembers acted correctly, using their training to solve a complex casualty.

Adm. Frank Kelso, USN
Chief of Naval Operations 1990 to 1994
Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet 1986-1990
Oral History Excerpt

An undated file photo of the 24th Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Frank B. Kelso II. US Navy Photo

As you said, one major event that happened during my time at CinCLantFlt (Commander in Chief Atlantic Fleet) was the Stark getting hit accidentally by an Iraqi aircraft-launched missile. The Stark tragedy was a very difficult event to understand why it occurred, and it created the worst of tragedies for the families involved. We learned many new lessons from the Stark about the changes that were taking place in the operation of deployed ships in a changing world.

I remember getting a phone call that said the Stark had been hit in the Persian Gulf. They thought there might be a few injured and maybe one dead. And, of course, the news that the Stark had been hit came immediately over CNN. And I really wasn’t prepared for how to deal with such a casualty in the modern world of instant media notice.

Of course, what happened then was that every dependent, mother, father, that had anybody related to them on the Stark started to call to find out what happened on the Stark. And at that time we didn’t really know what had happened on the Stark

I think if I had to do it over again I would have told them, “This is what I know,” at any particular time during the period of time. It took a period of two or three days for this thing to sort out, and the total toll was 37 dead before it was over. It is not unusual for the true results to be slow to determine. Both the Stark and the other ships in the area did a magnificent job of fighting the fire and saving the ship when you look back at it. But a tragedy like that is very difficult to deal with.

Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, USN
‘As I Recall – Assault on the Stark’
Naval History Magazine June 2017

A plaque bears the names of the 37 Sailors killed during a missile strike on the guided-missile frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) is displayed at Mayport Memorial Park. US Navy Photo

The investigation began rather quickly. When 37 people die, the Navy gets disturbed. Within a very few days, Rear Admiral Grant Sharp and his team flew to Bahrain. The investigation, as I recall, went on for some ten days, maybe even a bit longer. Just before he left the ship, he said: “We’re finished. We’re going to go home, and we’re going to write this thing up.”

I had the temerity to say, “Grant, I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this, but how did we come out here on the staff, because I am concerned?”

He said: “I had no problem with your actions or the actions of your staff. The preparation and the briefings provided to the skipper of the Stark were appropriate and in my view sufficient for him to have taken the proper action.” That was reassuring.

Now, what really happened? This is the disturbing part. It seems that when Captain Brindel got back to his ship after the morning briefing on the flagship, he did not gather his key people together and go over with them the events that had occurred on board the Coontz. In the interviews during the investigation, he maintained over and over that he was so focused on the need to conduct a series of engineering drills for his superiors back in the United States that the rest of the mission came second.

I guess it was a young lieutenant down in CIC who didn’t want to make waves. He didn’t want to get up on the radio and tell anybody anything, so the airplane just flew down their throats. I really fault the skipper. Other people could have done something to prevent this, but it really emanated in this case from the top. A terrible tragedy, but it just shows what a lack of priorities and command attention can do.

The whole thing was a sad situation. The most moving day of my life was on the tarmac at Bahrain International Airport, when each of those 36 flag-draped coffins moved up the ramp on that C-141 for the flight home. (One crewman who went into the sea was not recovered.) Of course, what goes through your mind at that point, regardless of what the hell any investigation says, is, ‘Was there anything else that we could have done that might have avoided this goddamn thing?’

It will always be a sick feeling.

  • Ed L

    Back then, after reading all the reports and other Data. I felt that it was a deliberate attack and to this day I still think it was a deliberate attack. The Iraqi did the standard Recce and knew were the USS Stark was when the Exocets were fired

  • Jon Tessler

    I was onboard the USS GUADALCANAL(LPH-7) at that time. we passed and rendered honors to the USS Stark and her crew in the Red Sea on our way to Kenya as she transited home. Less then 3 months later, we entered the Gulf with HM-14 to conduct convoy and Minesweeping Ops.

  • Curtis Conway

    The lessons learned on the USS Stark are lost on those who designed our latest Small Surface Combatant that was to be build in replacement numbers, does not have the survivability and combat power, and will sink to the bottom if taking the same kind of damage, in spite of the fact that many protest that this is not the case. The LCS will have neither sufficient crew, or compartmentalization and watertight integrity to survive such damage. I hope the new frigate program fairs better.

    • NavySubNuke

      Well said. If we are going to risk the lives of almost 100 sailors and send them to sea on a self designated “combat ship” that costs almost $500M a copy than that “combat ship” should actually be able to engage in combat and have a reasonable chance of survival.

    • DaSaint

      A similarly lightly constructed Catamaran was hit juat a few months ago. It survived. We can’t take chances, but had this been a MCMV or Cyclone, niether would have been expected to survive. That said, we must ensure that the FFG is built to full naval standards commensurate to a FFG.

      • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

        It did not survive.

        While it didn’t sink, it was a total loss.

        • Chesapeakeguy

          Are you referring to the Stark, or the catamaran mentioned?

          • Curtis Conway

            Exactly. The USS Stark was rebuilt and steamed for years afterwords.

          • USNVO

            Yes, but much like the Roberts, it would have been cheaper to have built a new ship with the salvaged equipment from the Stark. It was a complete mission kill and absent the virtual total stripping of DC equipment from 4 other ships, it probably would have been a total loss.

      • yea…out of STEEL!…not aluminum

  • Jim Barden

    See LCOL Jeff Cooper’s lecture, “Mental Conditioning for Combat.” As I recall, Stark was engaged in a full power trial in preparation for OUTCHOP OPPE at the time of the attack. I was deployed in the Med at the time and wore a black ribbon around my SWO pin.

    • Keith F. Amacker

      true as well

  • Jffourquet

    Since the LCS is intended to replace the Perry class frigates, lets see how it holds up after being by 2 exocet missiles. That will answer the question about the LCS surviabiblity.

    • LCS would be sunk, they are lllliiiiiigggghhhhttttt weights….

  • Hugh

    I heard there was a massive re-supply of AFFF from ships that had come to assist, without which the ultimate outcome may have been very different. Also it showed the vulnerability of aluminium as used in the superstructure.

    • marc6850

      If this was a steel ship with armor, the loss of life would not have been this great if any.

  • Michael D. Woods

    Captain Brindel was recommended for court-martial but given a letter of reprimand, denying him a chance to defend himself. I don’t know whether he would have chosen to make a defense. He felt compelled to retire. Having seen aircraft accident investigations as a Marine Naval Aviator, I observe that senior officers always look for someone to accuse rather than look for what lessons can be learned.
    They call it, “fixing responsibility” but it looked an awful lot like fixing blame. The worst one I saw would decline to give further guidance when asked, saying he trusted us, but then attack when we guessed wrong. In general, our squadron commanders lived a no-risk life, just wanting to finish their ticket-punching command tours without an accident on their watch. Not all of them did, of course, probably not even half, but too many. That seems to have been at work here.

    • in hostile situations…the capt needs to live in CIC. this guy was asleep.

  • James Bowen

    This just goes to show the importance of being alert and being ready to fight at any time. Any seemingly routine new air, surface, or subsurface contact report can turn out to be a target with hostile intent that can launch a devastating attack within seconds.

    At the same time though, we can’t be trigger happy, as the Iranian Airbus tragedy a year later showed us.

    • ElmCityAle

      It would certainly help to have working, effective defensive systems as well.

  • dumpster4

    “The missiles were fired from an Iraqi Dassault Mirage F1 by a pilot who thought the U.S. frigate was an Iranian tanker.”

    According to:

    http://warisboring.com/in-1987-a-secret-iraqi-warplane-struck-an-american-frigate-and-killed-37-sailors/

    The attack on the Stark was actually carried out by a modified Falcon 50 business jet.

    Quote:

    “Although Iraqis suspected that U.S. intelligence knew it was a modified
    Falcon 50 business jet that holed a well-armed and well-protected
    frigate and killed 37 American personnel, they never revealed its
    existence, because this would have contradicted the version of the
    affair the Iraqi foreign ministry had sold”

    True/False?

    • firefights101

      That appears to be a credible explanation. Thanks for the link.

    • E1 Kabong

      Suspect, at best.

      That’s an amateur blog site, first off.

      There’s debate about that Falcon 50 ever having flown in that config.
      Some claim it was merely a propaganda exercise. The jets were target towers/trainers and hanging some missiles on it for a static display isn’t a problem.

      On one of the few photos of the radar equipped Falcon 50’s that’s claimed to be Exocet capable, notice there is NO shadow of the missile under the wing?

      I’ve seen pics of a CF-5 with AIM-4’s on the outer pylons…

  • ElmCityAle

    Based upon the redacted report of the Navy’s investigation made public as well as the massive changes made to the ships of that class afterward (Mk 92 Mod 6 CORT and CANDO and related changes), it is clear that those ships were badly outdated, outclassed, and ineffective in terms of their ability to detect and defend against many threats. It’s all well and good that the bravery of the crew, good training, and good fire fighting equipment helped save the ship – but would anyone argue that it wouldn’t have been better to have an effective radar detection and combat information system with effective defensive missiles and a working CIWS to avoid the damage in the first place?

    • Ken N

      I read a Navy analysis of the incident a long time ago..but I seem to remember the Phalanx CIWS wasn’t set to active at the time…so it didn’t even try to engage. Also some key crew members were not at their positions…such as the weapons control officer position AND the CIWS and MK-92 fire control radar.

      • ElmCityAle

        The public report has redacted sections and we will never know if either CIWS or the MK 92 FCS and SM-1 missiles could have successfully engaged, but per my comment above, the fact that massive upgrades were made to various systems implies there were identified deficiencies.

        • RickfrMar

          Greetings Ken and ElmCityAle
          Several months after the incident, a report was released after an investigation into the incident. Every ounce of me wanted to copy it but it was marked “Secret”. Those who worked in CIC were required to read it. Perry Class had two Mk. WCC’s. One for the STIR Radar and one for the CAS radar that had two seats, one for the Air Tracker and one for Surface engagement and the operator could remotely activate CIWS from there instead of at the Aft station. Stark would have been in Condition Three, wartime cruising so there should have been two WCC operators at their stations. I recall that the FC who I knew, had sent someone to find the other operator right before the missiles hit. He also supposedly locked onto the F1 after the missiles were fired but before impact. As some others have commented, the ship was in fact doing BECCE’s that night because they were to complete and OPPE prior to returning to the states. I’ve read several other reports over the years any many things have been left out or changed. We tracked “low flying” towed sleds many times but in reality they were still several hundred feet above the deck. I’m also sure any anti ship missile is designed to give off the lowest radar return as possible. All I’m saying is it was very possible to have at least got some return from the Mk. 92 search Radar, a hard track…I guess we will never know.

      • Keith F. Amacker

        all true

  • RickfrMar

    Being a former FC who was serving on FFG 40 when this happened has always haunted me. I went to Mk92 C School with the WCC operator who was on watch when the missiles hit. When we had MTI (moving target indicator) selected we could get a return from our own 76 mm rounds and SM1s on the MK92 search radar. I know low flyers are a challenge but this should of never happened!

    • Ken N

      According to the Navy investigation the MK-92 operator position was vacant at the time of the attack.

      • talk to the CO..he was in charge, that position should have NEVER been allowed to be vacant. they were in hostile condition…CIC should have been HOT

  • Curtis Conway

    The FFG-7 present did not have broadcast Link-11, so they saw the ESM line for the Iranian F-14s bouncing at Bandar Abbas and not following the airliner, but their information was not broadcast on the link for Vincennes to see, so no cross check was possible. Vincennes was watching an air target close their position flying down that same ESM bearing line that led back to Bandar Abbas, not realizing that the airliner was climbing out on that same line of bearing originating from own ship.

  • Joseph Piskac

    I was reading international exchange in the 1980s when the USS Stark incident took place. At the time the U.S. admitted to selling arms to Iran, and a high level diplomatic exchange had taken place. I felt that the attack on the Stark was intended to set a balance of harm or damages in relation to our selling arms to Iran. With the diplomatic exchange I though possibly the U.S. agreed to the attack. Reading the report here again on the incident it appears possible orders for the possible agreed exchange reached the Bridge of the USS Stark.

    • Kevin G

      We’ll never know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Saddam Hussein was giving payback to the US for playing both sides in their fight with Iran.
      The US agreeing to the attack? I think highly unlikely.

  • James Bowen

    No, I was not on board the VINCENNES, so admittedly I do not have first hand experience in what happened. However, four years after the incident it was revealed that there was a combination of confusion (possibly due to lack of adequate training) and trigger-happiness on the part of the CO who had previously exhibited a tendency to ignore rules of engagement that had greatly contributed to downing of the Airbus.

    We need trained and alert men who take all possible threats seriously, but we also need level heads to accurately pick out the actual threats from the noise and distractions. I never said this is an easy thing to do, but it is necessary.

  • USNVO

    I wasn’t onboard either ship but I made several deployments to the Gulf during that timeframe and went through work ups with the VINCENNES before she deployed and can confirm they were widely viewed as trigger happy by their battle group Even the most casual reader of the incident reports quickly comes to the realization that both ships had severe conformational bias, the STARK to do nothing because they had seen the same thing numerous times and rejected all evidence to the contrary, and the VINCENNES because they expected an attack and rejected all evidence to the contrary.

  • John B. Morgen

    Back then the lessons were learned about the USS Stark’s awful encountered with a Iraqi jet fighter, but were those lessons still remembered to this day. It is a question that should be asking within the Fleet as our new president will face to take actions against North Korea or China, maybe with Russia or Iran..

  • Steven Elliott

    Gentlemen there is a bit of truth, slightly more common sense being shown in this lively discussion, and as always a WHOLE lot of talking out of the neck going on here. I was one of six “Volunteer” sailors that were sent to ‘Walley World’s as a result of the Stark Incident. As it happened I was the senior enlisted in our Gulf excursion party. A point has been poorly brought up regarding the possibility of that whole tragedy being, not the result of an under trained over worked Iraqi pilot afraid to return with an used missile, and the over stated attitude and lack of seriousness on the part of our military.. or could have it been a planned sneak attack instigated by one Saddam Hussein. We will never know for sure. However I shall conclude by leaving all of You to ponder this….One result of the attack in an effort to prevent a repeating of history, is that we agreed to what essentially was our performing targeting for future Iraqi missile runs, as we informed the incoming fighter of the position of all neutral shipping. Telling the pilot the rest was free game. Accident or Intentional???? Take care all.

  • sad stuff, but CIC should have went to GQ when the aircraft was boring in on them. this is a hostile situation. and the worst needs to be assumed as baseline. the SUBROC should have been brought to launch ready and the phalanx should have been in AUTO FIRE and set ACTIVE. after all!! , they had verified a missile lock tone and they should have been looking to fend off the attack.

  • TZAZ

    The Starks command let her crew down, 37 sailors perished because of this breach of leadership.

  • Dennis

    The captain, XO, First LT, and OOD should have been assigned to counting paper clips at the Pentagon until their Not-Recommended-For-Retention tours were up! No matter how close they were to retirement. Quick reaction and decision-making was not in their knowledge. In fact, that should have been known and identified long ago on their evals. They should have been serving on garbage scows, not frigates!!

  • Len Dempsey

    I did a podcast with one of the Signalmen who was onboard you can listen to it here https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-2dupn-87c572