At 8:00 PM on 17 March 1987, a Mirage F-1 fighter jet took off from Iraq's Shaibah military airport and headed south into the Persian Gulf, flying along the Saudi Arabian coast. An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane, in the air over Saudi Arabia and manned by a joint American-Saudi crew, detected the aircraft. Aboard the USS Stark, a Perry-class frigate on duty in the gulf, radar operators picked up the Mirage when it was some 200 miles away; it was flying at 5,000 feet and traveling at 550 mph. Captain Glenn Brindel, 43, commander of the Stark, was not particularly alarmed. He knew it was fairly common for Iraqi and Iranian warplanes to fly over the gulf. Earlier in the day, Iraqi jets had fired missiles into a Cypriot tanker, disabling the vessel. But no American vessel had been attacked.
In keeping with standard procedure, Captain Brindel ordered a radio message flashed at 10:09 PM: "Unknown aircraft, this is U.S. Navy warship on your 078 for twelve miles. Request you identify yourself." There was no reply. A second request was sent. Still no answer. Brindel noted that the aircraft's pilot had not locked his targeting radar on the Stark, so he expected it to veer away.
At 10:10 PM, the AWACS crew noticed that the Mirage had banked suddenly and then turned northward, as though heading for home. What they failed to detect was the launching by the Iraqi pilot of two Exocet AM39 air-to-surface missiles. The Exocets had a range of 40 miles and each carried a 352 lb. warhead. For some reason, the sea-skimming missiles were not detected by the Stark's sophisticated monitoring equipment. A lookout spotted the first Exocet just seconds before the missile struck, tearing a ten-by-fifteen-foot hole in the warship's steel hull on the port side before ripping through the crew's quarters. The resulting fire rushed upward into the vessel's combat information center, disabling the electrical systems. The second missile plowed into the frigate's superstructure.
A crewman sent a distress signal with a handheld radio that was picked up by the USS Waddell, a destroyer on patrol nearby. Meanwhile, the AWACS crew requested that two airborne Saudi F-15s pursue the Iraqi Mirage. But ground controllers at Dhahran airbase said they lacked the authority to embark on such a mission, and the Mirage was safely back in Iraqi airspace before approval could be obtained.
As fires raged aboard the Stark, Brindel ordered the starboard side blooded to keep the gaping hole on the port side above the waterline. All through the night the fate of the stricken frigate was in doubt. Once the inferno was finally under control, the Stark limped back to port. The Navy immediately launched an investigation into an incident that had cost 37 American seamen their lives. The Stark was endowed with an impressive array of defenses -- an MK92 fire control system that could intercept incoming aircraft at a range of 90 miles; an OTO gun that could fire three-inch anti-aircraft shells at a rate of 90 per minute; electronic defenses that could produce bogus radar images to deceive attackers; and the Phalanx, a six-barreled gun that could fire 3,000 uranium rounds a minute at incoming missiles. Brindel insisted that his ship's combat system was fully operational, but Navy technicians in Bahrain said the Stark's Phalanx system had not been working properly when the frigate put out to sea. (Brindel was relieved of duty and later forced to retire.)
A C141B Starlifter carried 35 flag-draped caskets to the Stark's home base at Mayport, Florida. (Two of the crewmen were lost at sea during the attack.) President Reagan and the First Lady were on hand to extend condolences to grieving families. Reagan was under fire from Congress and the press for putting American servicemen in harm's way on a vaguely defined mission. "We need to rethink exactly what we are doing in the Persian Gulf," said Republican Senator Robert Dole. The Senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution, sponsored by Dole and Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, that demanded the president explain to Congress the strategy and goals of the Persian Gulf mission -- and the risks involved. Congress was also unhappy with Saudi Arabia for what it viewed as a lackadaisical response to the request to pursue the Iraqi Mirage -- so unhappy, in fact, that the administration thought it wise to delay submission of a proposal to sell new F-15 fighter jets to the Saudis.
The strife in the gulf had started in 1984 when Iran and Iraq, at war since 1980, began attacking each other's ships. Inevitably, the vessels of third countries became targets. Over 200 ships had been attacked in the past three years. The Iranians were particularly keen to target the ships of Iraq's ally, Kuwait. Even though only 7% of American oil supplies came from the region, the Reagan administration insisted that U.S. strategic interests required a naval presence in the gulf. Critics complained that Western Europe and Japan, which acquired 25% and 60% of their respective oil needs from the gulf, weren't doing their part in keeping the sea lanes open. In fact, certain Western European nations had become major suppliers of military hardware to both Iran and Iraq. Damage done to the Stark had been caused by French-built missiles fired from a French-built aircraft.
The administration argued that to withdraw from the gulf would be to surrender America's role as leader of the free world, and that if oil shipments were disrupted, prices would soar, adversely affecting the U.S. economy. As one Western diplomat put it, if the U.S. backed out, it wouldn't "have enough credibility to float a teacup." Furthermore, the Soviet Union had increased its naval presence in the gulf, and the fear was that if the U.S. faltered, the Soviets would gain the upper hand in the region -- and growing Soviet influence in the region would pose a long-term threat to the West's oil supplies. "We will not be intimidated," said Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. "We will not be driven from the gulf." He described the attack on the Stark as a "horrible error," and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was quick to apologize for the "unintentional incident." Evidently, the Mirage pilot had mistaken the Stark for an Iranian tanker. Iraq promised to pay compensation to the families of the 37 slain seamen, and reparations for damages to the frigate. Officially the United States was neutral in the Iran-Iraq conflict, but the administration had decided that geopolitic considerations required that Iraq not lose the war. In the aftermath of the Stark incident, the rhetoric coming out of Washington was of a forgiving nature where Iraq was concerned, while growing increasingly hostile in reference to Iran.
The White House was resolute. "The use of the vital sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians," said President Reagan during a press conference. "Those lanes will not be allowed to come under the control of the Soviet Union. The Persian Gulf will remain open to navigation by the nations of the world." The U.S. naval presence was increased from six to nine ships. Air cover would be provided by a carrier stationed outside the gulf. The American warships would escort convoys of Kuwaiti tankers every ten days or so. Iran vowed to continue attacking Kuwaiti tankers regardless of whether they flew the Stars and Stripes.
Congress objected to the open-ended nature of this commitment. Memories of Vietnam -- and of the Lebanon peacekeeping debacle in the early 1980s, during which 241 Marines were killed in their barracks by a suicide bomber -- prompted many solons to insist on knowing what rules of engagement the U.S. Navy would be operating under while escorting oil tankers in the gulf. The answer: A U.S. warship could fire on any aircraft that came within 20 miles of it, on the authority of the captain.
Unfortunately, the U.S. was so concerned about Iranian Sidewinder missiles being placed so as to control the Strait of Hormuz that it neglected to sweep the approaches for mines, one of which damaged an escorted tanker in July. The incident was egg on the face of the Navy, accused of sloppy mission preparation, and embarrassed the administration, which, while presiding over an unprecedented peacetime military buildup, had only three operational ocean-going minesweepers in service. But on 21 September 1987, the military redeemed itself by conducting a successful raid involving U.S. Navy SEALS on an Iranian vessel caught laying mines. Five Iranian seamen were killed. That same week, Iran attacked a British-flagged tanker; Britain responded by shutting down Iran's London-based arms procurement office. (By this time, British, French, Belgian, Dutch and Italian warships had joined the Americans and Soviets in patrolling the gulf.) The American raid gave some senators an excuse to push for invocation of the War Powers Act; they claimed the U.S. was clearly engaged in hostilities. The law required that the president obtain congressional approval of military action extending beyond a period of 60 days. But the Senate voted 51-40 not to invoke the law.
Following the September 21 raid, Iran amassed 60 gunboats and directed the flotilla toward Khafji, a Saudi-Kuwaiti oil facility. The USS La Salle, flagship of Rear Admiral Harold Bernsen, commander of the U.S. Navy Middle East Force, moved to intercept the gunboats, which turned back after being buzzed by Saudi warplanes. Another encounter involved an Iranian warship that locked fire control radar on a USN destroyer, the Kidd; warned off by the Kidd's skipper, the Iranian ship sailed away. Then, on October 8, Iranian gunboats fired at a U.S. Army helicopter, missing the target but attracting the attention of two U.S. AH-6 gunship choppers, which sank one of the gunboats and damaged two others. Iran responded by firing Silkworm missiles at the U.S.-owned Liberian supertanker Sungari and the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City, damaging both vessels. There were no fatalities, though the American skipper of the Sea Isle City, Captain John Hunt, was blinded.
Few doubted the U.S. would retaliate. Two weeks later, four U.S. destroyers fired over one thousand rounds of 5-in. shells into Iran's Rashadat oil-loading platforms in the Persian Gulf -- after giving the platform crews twenty minutes to evacuate. Ninety minutes of continuous shelling left the platforms smoldering ruins; SEAL commando teams exploded the pilings and sent the rubble plunging into the sea. The Iranians answered by firing another Silkworm at Sea Island, Kuwait's deep-water oil-loading facility, destroying the loading dock. "We're not going to have a war with Iran," said President Reagan. "They're not that stupid." But it certainly seemed as though an undeclared war was already underway. A public opinion poll revealed that while 68% of Americans expected a "military exchange" between the U.S. and Iran, 60% were in favor of stronger retaliatory action against the Iranians.
The situation remained tense throughout the winter, but not until April 1988 did violence erupt once again in the Persian Gulf. Ten seamen were injured when the USN frigate Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine on April 14. Being careful to consult with Congress this time, President Reagan ordered a retaliatory strike against two Iranian oil platforms in the southern gulf -- platforms that served as bases for Iran's intelligence service. While one platform was shelled by the frigates Simpson and Bagley, Marines helicoptered to the second, seized it, planted explosive charges, and destroyed it. A few minutes later, the Simpson sank an Iranian patrol boat that had fired a missile at the USN guided-missile cruiser Wainwright. (The Wainwright defended itself by dispensing aluminum chaff in the air, which deflected the missile.) Meanwhile, near the Strait of Hormuz, two Iranian frigates and several gunboats were sunk by American warships and an F-14 Tomcat from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. During the day-long battle, a Cobra helicopter carrying two American crewmen was shot down by the Iranians.
This defeat at sea, coupled with grave setbacks in the land war with Iraq, persuaded Iranian leaders to seek improved relations with the West. The Ayatollah Khomeini agreed with Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, on the need to pursue a new foreign policy that would defuse tensions in the Persian Gulf. As for the United States, its resolve in the gulf in 1987-88 improved its standing with allies, not only in the Middle East but also around the world.
The USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655
In the Combat Information Center of the USS Vincennes -- a $1.2 billion Aegis cruiser, the most sophisticated warship in the world -- Captain Will Rogers III had just seven minutes to decide whether or not to fire at the Iranian aircraft coming straight for him. It was 3 July 1988, and just a half-hour earlier the Vincennes and the USS Elmer Montgomery had clashed with Iranian gunboats. Captain Rogers became increasingly sure that the aircraft, which had taken off from Bandar Abbas airport in Iran, a joint military-civilian field, was an Iranian F-14. The plane did not respond to seven warnings to identify itself, and the Vincennes picked up transmissions from the aircraft on the Mode 2 military frequency. As the plane came within 20 miles of the cruiser, radar showed it beginning to descend from 9,000 feet and pick up altitude. (Data from other sources subsequently contradicted this.) When the aircraft was nine miles away, Rogers ordered the firing of two SM-2 surface-to-air missiles. At least one missile hit the target -- which turned out to be Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian airliner carrying 290 people. The UN Security Council declined to issue a condemnation of the U.S. action, and President Reagan promised to pay compensation to the families of the victims. The Navy was embarrassed; one of its new Aegis cruisers, capable of tracking and destroying 200 missiles at once, had shot down an unarmed civilian aircraft in its first action. But after a year of surprise attacks and nerves on edge in the Persian Gulf, it seemed almost inevitable that a tragedy such as the shootdown of Flight 655 would happen.
The Economist, 15 August 1987, 3 October 1987, 24 October 1987
Newsweek, 2 November 1987, 18 July 1988, 25 July 1988
Time, 1 June 19878 June 1987, 3 August 1987, 10 August 1987, 17 August 1987, 24 August 1987, 5 October 1987, 19 October 1987, 26 October 1987, 2 November 1987, 2 May 1988
Storm Center: The USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655
Will and Sharon Rogers (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1992)
"Sea of Lies:The USS Vincennes shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988 which resulted in the deaths of over 290 innocent passengers, and the U.S. Navy's attempted cover-up." (www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/