In the Persian Gulf, a port quarter view of the guided missile frigate USS STARK (FFG-31) listing to port after being hit by two Iraqi Exocet missiles within 30 seconds. 37 sailors are killed.
The Persian Gulf
April 18, 1988
The Cold War was a period of putative world peace punctuated by countless small wars—and some that were not so small. From Berlin to Cuba, Korea to Vietnam, the two superpowers focused much of their national energy—and their national treasure—on an effort to gain an advantage over the other, or at least to prevent the other from gaining an advantage. The weapons grew increasingly sophisticated and terrible as both sides developed nuclear capability as well as ever-larger rocket engines to increase warhead “throw weight” in a grisly calculation of mutual deterrence.
U.S. aircraft carriers more than doubled in size, from 45,000 tons to 96,000 tons, and the planes they carried were supersonic jets capable of carrying nuclear payloads. Submarines, too, became bigger, much quieter, and much, much deadlier. The advent of nuclear propulsion made possible extended sea-keeping capability for the nation’s huge new carriers and especially for its ballistic-missile submarines—called boomers—which gave the Navy a role in strategic deterrence. By the 1960s a “triad” of Air Force bombers, land-based missiles in silos, and Polaris missiles housed in nuclear-powered submarines was supposed to provide a deterrent so convincing that the Soviets would fear to embark on the program of world conquest that most Americans believed was their ultimate goal.
Of all these technological changes, however, the one that marked the most dramatic milestone in the character of naval warfare was the revolution in electronic integration, communication, and missile capability developed toward the end of the twentieth century even as the Soviet Union was collapsing. That a revolution in warfare had taken place first became evident to the American public during the 1991 Gulf War when it watched with awe and admiration as U.S. ordnance fitted with television cameras took out Iraqi targets with astonishing precision. If subsequent investigation proved that not every strike was quite as precise as initially advertised, it was nevertheless a far cry from the gravity-guided bombs of World War II. Moreover, the integrated electronic infrastructure that made the delivery of these weapons possible marked a revolution as well. While a World War II naval aviator might nod in recognition at a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier even as he wondered at its size and puzzled over its propulsion plant, he would have been dumbfounded by his first look inside the combat information center on an AEGIS-equipped guided missile cruiser: a dark, air-conditioned room filled with banks of humming computers that linked air, surface, and even satellite assets together in a worldwide, real-time network.
For much of the Cold War, the important battlegrounds were in Europe (Berlin), Asia (Korea and Vietnam), and even Latin America (Cuba), but toward the end of the twentieth century the Middle East emerged as a region of special concern for the United States and for the U.S. Navy. Though the ancient empire of Persia officially changed its name to Iran in 1935, the body of water that marked its western boundary retained its former designation, and it was in the Persian Gulf that the post–Cold War U.S. Navy made its public debut.
The Persian Gulf is roughly twice the size of Lake Erie, and it washes the shores of eight countries: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. That, and the fact that it is the centerpiece of a region that possesses 80 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, made it one of the busiest waterways in the world by the 1980s. Every day dozens of tankers carrying millions of barrels of oil transited the length of the Gulf to pass into the Arabian Sea through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, heading for America, Europe, and especially Japan, which in the 1980s obtained nearly two-thirds of its oil from the Persian Gulf.
On April 18, 1988, in the last twilight days of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy provided a glimpse of the new template of naval warfare, and of America’s apparent willingness to act as a world policeman, when it fought the largest naval battle since World War II in what was known officially as Operation Praying Mantis.
On the evening of May 17, 1987, the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigate, was cruising in what was nearly the geographical center of the Persian Gulf, ninety miles northeast of Bahrain. Poking along at three knots, the Stark’s mission was vague at best. While it was supposed to demonstrate American interest and concern in a part of the world that supplied much of the world’s oil, it was also cruising through a war zone. For more than six years, ever since Iraq had invaded Iran in an attempt to expand its own tiny coastline at its neighbor’s expense, Iran and Iraq had been engaged in a vicious war that showed no sign of ending. By 1987 the war had settled into a bloody stalemate and had spilled over into the waters of the Gulf, where Iraqi warplanes attacked shipping headed for Iranian ports, and Iranian gunboats attacked vessels that traded with Iraq. Although no U.S. vessels had been targeted so far, the ships of several neutral countries were being assaulted by both sides. Just that week the United States had pledged itself to begin protecting oil tankers from Kuwait, but as of May 17 it had not yet begun active patrols, and the Stark’s role was essentially one of showing the flag.
The Stark was a relatively new ship, built less than five years before as part of a program to develop a “low-cost, no-frills warship.” At only 3,600 tons, it was no larger than the ABC cruisers that had heralded the “New Navy” back in 1883 and considerably smaller than Dewey’s Olympia. In theory a large number of such vessels would give the United States a greater worldwide presence than fewer larger (and therefore more expensive) warships. Because of the American concern with Soviet submarines, the Stark’s primary mission was antisubmarine warfare (ASW). It had a small landing deck and twin helicopter hangers aft, and its main battery consisted of a single seventy-six-millimeter (three-inch) rapid-fire gun amidships. It also had the ability to fire what the Navy called its standard missile (SM-1), which could be aimed at either surface or air targets and which had a range of some thirty miles. Most of the rest of the superstructure of the Stark was covered by an array of communications antenna and radar receivers: air search, surface search, and fire control systems. In conformance with its ASW mission, it also had a modern sonar system to detect and pursue Soviet submarines.
The Perry-class frigates had numerous critics, who derisively called them “Kmart ships,” noting that they had only one propeller, which made them both slower and less maneuverable than larger twin-screw warships. They were also relatively thin-skinned, having only five-eighths of an inch of aluminum alloy between the living spaces and the sea, and unlike Ericsson’s Monitor, they had almost no armor. When operating beyond the range of friendly air cover, they could be vulnerable to air attack. They were not defenseless, however. The Stark could fire off clouds of aluminized plastic confetti, known as chaff, to confuse the radar of inbound missiles. And atop the helicopter hanger at the stern was an odd-looking contraption: a radar dome shaped like a giant beehive with a bundle of six gun barrels poking out of it. It was a Phalanx close-in weapons system (the acronym was CIWS, but everyone pronounced it “C-WIZ”): a self-aiming, automated Gatling gun capable of throwing up a virtual wall of twenty-millimeter depleted-uranium rounds at the rate of three thousand per minute. Though useful only at short range, its purpose was to shoot down incoming missiles.
At a few minutes after 8:00 P.M. on that May 17, Lieutenant Basil Moncrief, who had the duty as tactical action officer (TAO) in the Stark’s combat information center (CIC), received a report from an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) airplane—essentially a flying radar station— that an Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter had departed Shaibah Military Airport in southern Iraq and was “feet wet” over the Gulf, flying southward toward the Stark’s position. By itself, the report did not set off any alarms. Ever since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war six years earlier, there had been a lot of air traffic over the Gulf, most of it Iraqi. Almost routinely, Iraqi fighters and attack planes flew southward down the center of the Gulf— which Americans had begun to call “Mirage Alley”—then turned east toward the coast of Iran to launch their missiles in the general direction of Iran, or at shipping that was headed for Iran, before streaking home again. Just that morning an Iraqi jet had fired missiles into a Cypriot tanker in an Iranian port. By itself, therefore, the information that an Iraqi Mirage jet was flying south down the Gulf was unremarkable.
The Stark’s air search radar picked up the Iraqi plane at two hundred miles; it was keeping to the western side of the Gulf, well out of Iranian air space, and it was closing on the American frigate. At about 9:00 the Stark’s captain, a forty-four-year-old, sandy-haired career officer named Glenn Brindel, asked Moncrief for an update. The plane was then about seventy miles out and still closing. The petty officer manning the radar system asked if he should generate a standard warning message, but Moncrief hesitated. “No,” he said. “Wait.” During the past few months the Stark had experienced a number of close fly-bys, and he suspected that this was simply one more. Five minutes later, with the Iraqi jet less than fifty miles out, it turned sharply toward the Stark. Moncrief alerted Brindel, who directed Moncrief to send out a message on the international air distress frequency demanding identification: “Unknown aircraft, this is U.S. Navy warship on your 078 for twelve miles. Request you identify yourself.”
Even as this message hit the airwaves, the Iraqi pilot fired an Exocet AM39 air-to-surface missile. Launched at two thousand feet, the missile dropped quickly to sea level and then began streaking toward the Stark, only eight feet above the surface, at five hundred miles an hour. Within seconds, the Iraqi pilot fired a second missile, then turned abruptly northward and headed for home. The SPS-49 radar on the Stark did not detect the separation of the Exocet from the Mirage. If it had, Brindel could have ordered the deployment of the chaff or CIWS systems. The first notice of approaching disaster came not from the sophisticated sensors but from a lookout on the bridge, who spotted the Exocet when it was only a mile away, which gave the ship about four seconds’ warning. A shout from the lookout led Brindel to order the Stark hard to starboard in order to unmask the CIWS system astern.
Too late. At 9:09 the first missile slammed into the Stark’s port side just below the bridge. The warhead did not detonate, but it tore a ten-by-fifteen-foot hole in the ship’s side, then disintegrated into a hundred pieces, the largest of which ripped through the crew’s quarters, the ship’s barber shop, and post office and lodged against the starboard side. The second missile struck thirty seconds later, and its warhead did explode, igniting fires that spread almost instantly through the crew’s quarters. Seven men were thrown into the sea by the impact. Resting in the crew’s quarters near where the first missile hit, Petty Officer Michael O’Keefe was thrown from his bunk onto the deck. Jumping to his feet, he dashed to the main hatch and pulled it open only to encounter a giant fireball. “That’s when I knew we were in real trouble,” he said later.
Brindel ordered counterflooding on the starboard side to avoid capsizing and to keep the huge hole on the ship’s port side above the waterline. The damage control teams performed heroically, fighting the fires all night, joined later by teams from the guided missile destroyers USS Wad-dell and USS Conyngham. The fires were so hot (eighteen hundred degrees) they melted the aluminum alloy of the ship’s superstructure; water sprayed onto the fires turned into superheated steam that scalded the firefighters. A shortage of oxygen canisters, which allowed firefighters to breathe amid the heavy smoke, also retarded the crew’s firefighting efforts. For several hours it was problematic whether they could keep the ship afloat. Not until the afternoon of the next day was it evident that the Stark would survive. The fire in the combat information center was not quenched until 5:00 P.M., nineteen hours after the attack. Assisted by a salvage tug, the Stark limped into Bahrain with thirty-seven dead on board.
In keeping with the traditions of the sea, Brindel lost his job. A Navy investigation concluded that he had “failed to provide combat oriented leadership,” and he was forced to resign. Many, both in and out of the Navy, acknowledged that the rules of engagement (ROE) under which Brindel had to operate had severely limited his options. Those rules authorized him to fight back “whenever hostile intent or a hostile act occurs.” But “hostile intent” is impossible to know, and due to the failure of the ship’s SPS-49 radar, it was not evident that a “hostile act” had occurred until four seconds before the missile struck, when the forward lookout shouted a warning. Brindel’s critics suggested that he should have put the chaff and CIWS systems into automatic mode, or at least challenged the approaching fighter sooner than he did. His defenders insisted that if he had shot down the Mirage before it launched the missiles, he would have been cashiered for being too quick on the trigger. Whatever the merits of either argument, it is the merciless law of the sea that a captain accept responsibility for his ship’s failure or success, and Brindel was no exception. Lieutenant Moncrief was also forced to resign.
The Iraqis explained away the incident as a matter of mistaken identity and pilot error, which it almost certainly was, for Iraq had nothing to gain by alienating the United States, which was supporting its war against Iran. If some Americans doubted the sincerity of Iraq’s apology, the Reagan administration accepted it because it wanted to maintain its pro-Iraqi stance. The disaster did provoke sharp questions from Congress and the press. The Senate voted ninety-one to five to delay the implementation of the American commitment to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf until the Reagan administration clarified its policy. In a rare criticism of his own party, Republican Senator Robert Dole of Kansas declared bluntly, “We need to rethink exactly what we are doing in the Persian Gulf.” More pointedly, the New York Times editorialized that “the Administration . . . had no business sending ships sailing into harm’s way without having thought [it] through.” And Newsweek chimed in with an article entitled “A Questionable Policy,” which asked, “What are the administration’s goals in the gulf?”
It was an important question, and over the next fourteen months it prompted a reevaluation of American foreign and defense policy. At the heart of the debate was a consideration of the readiness or willingness of the United States to accept the role of international peacekeeper in the Persian Gulf—or anywhere else, for that matter. The United States had played the role of peacekeeper before (President Truman had referred to the Korean War as a “police action”). But to some, American interests in the Persian Gulf were not clear, and many feared that the country was trying on the uniform of global policeman. Moreover, these considerations took place at a time when the first rumblings of an earthquake in the global balance of power were becoming evident. Within half a dozen years the Soviet Union—America’s rival for forty years—would begin to fall apart, leaving the United States as the sole remaining superpower on earth. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the willingness of the United States to take on the responsibilities of what amounted to a maritime constabulary force marked a shift not only in U.S. policy but also in America’s role in the world. It was, as one American sailor in the Persian Gulf declared, “a whole new ball game.”
The Persian Gulf became the focus of this policy reassessment because of two issues that, though technically unrelated, became entangled nonetheless, and drew the United States into the region with all the centripetal force of a whirlpool. One was America’s Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and the other was oil.
The need for oil—the mother’s milk of modern industry—had led Japan to risk its empire in a war with the United States in 1941. In the United States, however, the availability of oil had never been a particular concern. Throughout the Second World War and into the early Cold War years, the United States had plenty of oil for its own use and even continued to export it abroad, selling it overseas as fast as it could be pumped out of the vast Spindletop oil fields in Texas. But in the winter of 1947–48 the expanding postwar economy—and the resulting spike in the domestic use of oil—led for the first time to shortages at home. The shortage was serious enough that for a while it seemed the United States might run out of heating oil just as winter set in. Newspapers recalled the coal strike of 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt had threatened to nationalize the mines to prevent families from freezing to death in their homes. In 1948 Truman was less draconian. He called for conservation, ordering the thermostats in government offices to be set back to sixty-eight degrees (as both Nixon and Carter would do during later energy scares), but he also released one million barrels of the U.S. Navy’s strategic oil reserves for domestic use. For the first time both the United States and the U.S. Navy confronted the reality of their dependence on oil.
That year also marked a turning point in the emerging relationship between the U.S. Navy and the countries bordering the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Even before the fuel crisis of 1948, the Navy had begun to buy oil from the Gulf region simply because it was cheaper there. Oil cost about $1.48 per barrel in the United States, but in the Persian Gulf it could be had for $1.05 a barrel from the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). The 1948 crisis increased U.S. Navy reliance on Persian Gulf oil, and Navy planners began to see the region as important to American interests. In consequence, they established Task Force 126 (U.S. Naval Forces, Persian Gulf), which initially consisted only of Navy oil tankers. Over time this force was augmented and renamed the Middle East Force, eventually becoming part of Central Command (CENTCOM) in 1983.
It was clear at once that operating in the Persian Gulf posed special problems for the U.S. Navy, both politically and operationally. Politically, the absence of American naval bases in the region required the United States to develop relationships with states that bordered the Gulf. Eventually the United States negotiated basing rights with the tiny sheikdom of Bahrain, taking over the former British base at Jufair, and tried repeatedly to gain similar rights in Saudi Arabia, though the Saudis proved to be reluctant partners at best.
Operationally, there were two problems. The first was the weather. When the United States sent its first task force into the Gulf in the summer of 1948, the officers and crew were entirely unprepared for the relentless heat. With daytime temperatures topping 120 degrees, it was too hot to eat in the galley, and the sailors took their trays topside to sit at tables on the fantail, where at least there was a little breeze; it was impossible to shower, as the water in the pipes was literally scalding; and even sleeping was difficult because the nighttime temperature in the berthing spaces sometimes topped 115 degrees.
The other operational problem was the peculiar geography of the Persian Gulf. It is so narrow, and large parts of it, especially on the eastern side, are so shallow, that it funnels all deep-draft ship traffic into a fairly narrow channel. Indeed, the geography of the Gulf region compelled the Navy’s “blue water” fleet to adjust to the requirements and limitations of littoral warfare. The Gulf was (and is) a particularly unsatisfactory place for aircraft carriers to operate. In order to provide air cover for U.S. Navy surface units operating in the Gulf, therefore, American carriers stationed themselves south of the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman—a location sailors immediately dubbed “Camel Station.”
Besides oil, the other factor in the American strategic equation in the early Cold War era was the constant, even obsessive, American concern about the Soviet Union. The overarching U.S. policy of containment, which required the United States to confront Soviet ambitions everywhere in the world, certainly included the Middle East, especially since that region’s volatile politics and proven oil reserves made it both vulnerable and desirable. After World War II, the United States sought to bolster the stability of the Gulf region by cultivating close relations with Saudi Arabia and by backing Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, in what amounted to a coup to overthrow Iran’s nationalist (and virulently anti-British) prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In the early 1970s, in the wake of the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the British retreat from maintaining a military presence “east of Suez,” President Richard Nixon sought to formalize U.S. relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which he referred to as “the twin pillars” of stability in the Gulf region.
While American interest in the Persian Gulf was firmly grounded in the rivalry of the Cold War, other issues were percolating beneath the surface. Arabs had long resented America’s strong support for Israel, and during the 1970s anger at what some Arabs saw as American cultural imperialism contributed to a revival of Islamic fundamentalism. Unrest was particularly great in Iran because, even though he often proved resistant to American advice, the shah was nevertheless perceived as an American puppet. In addition, he squandered about a third of his country’s entire budget buying modern weaponry that was well beyond any realistic assessment of Iran’s defense needs. In early 1979 the country exploded in anger, and the shah and his wife were forced to flee. The government collapsed, and what eventually filled the vacuum was a regime grounded in Islamic religious law and dominated by the Shiite ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For the United States, the decisive event in this crisis was the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by student supporters of the new regime. For more than a year, some fifty-two Americans, including eight Marines, were held as hostages in Tehran. Televised images of blindfolded American hostages and their gleeful, unrepentant captors infuriated the American public.
President Jimmy Carter used a State of the Union address to warn the Soviet Union (which sent troops into Afghanistan that same year) not to try to take advantage of the chaos in Iran. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he warned, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.” This statement, quickly labeled the Carter Doctrine, marked a revival of American commitment to international involvement that had waned significantly in the wake of the nation’s unhappy experience in Vietnam. More significantly, it was a policy that, under Carter’s successors, would go a long way toward establishing the United States as a kind of regional policeman.
For Iraq, the 1979 revolution in Iran was both bad news and good news. Iraq was a secular state with a Shiite Muslim majority, but its government was dominated by Sunni Muslims. The elevation of a Shiite ayatollah in Tehran was therefore of considerable concern, especially if it encouraged Iraqi Shiites to look to Tehran rather than to Baghdad for leadership and inspiration. On the other hand, the revolution had separated Iran from its rich and powerful American patron and dramatically weakened its military forces, which were in a shambles after being purged of those who were not loyal to the new regime. In such circumstances, the new president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, believed he saw an opportunity.
Since its creation as a British mandate after World War I, Iraq’s most significant geographical deficiency was that except for a tiny toehold on the northern end of the Persian Gulf, it was virtually landlocked. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers merged to flow into the Gulf in what was called the Shatt al-Arab (the Arab River), but Iraq had sovereignty over only the western bank of that river, for the Iran-Iraq boundary ran down the center of the ship channel. For years Iraq had made no secret of its ambition to obtain a real coastline, and with the collapse of the shah and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein believed that his moment had come. In September 1980, with America in the throes of anti-Iranian hysteria due to the ongoing hostage crisis, he launched a ground invasion of Iran.
Instead of the easy victory that almost everyone expected, the Iraqi army ran into fanatical resistance. The war lasted through the fall and winter, and then into the hot Gulf summer. And still it continued: into a second year, then a third, and a fourth. By the mid-1980s it had become one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century, with hundreds of thousands killed and no end in sight. Desperate to achieve a breakthrough, both sides adopted irregular tactics. The clerics who ruled Iran urged their poorly supplied soldiers to carry out human-wave attacks that, however costly, nevertheless won them some tactical victories. For his part, in addition to ordering Scud missile attacks on Tehran, Saddam Hussein authorized the use of poison gas on the battlefield as well as at home, where his regime was threatened by a Kurdish uprising.
Iraq began the naval war in the Persian Gulf barely two weeks into the fighting when, on October 7, 1980, it declared the waters off Iran a “prohibited war zone” and announced that any vessel inside that zone was subject to destruction—not just Iranian vessels but those of any nationality that visited an Iranian port. This was similar to Imperial Germany’s declaration of a “war zone” around the British Isles in 1914, but while Germany had relied on submarines to enforce its declaration, Iraq relied on the airplane. As the war began to turn against Iraq, Iraqi air attacks on Gulf shipping escalated and focused particularly on tankers in order to deprive Iran of the money it needed to continue the war. The goal was to frighten neutral shipping away from Iranian ports, and during 1982, Iraqi Mirage fighters conducted twenty-one attacks on tankers, most of them neutrals, in the Persian Gulf.
Iran countered with the declaration that it would “not allow any merchant ship to carry cargo to Iraqi ports.” There was an obvious threat in the announcement that “the Iranian government will not take responsibility for those vessels which do not pay consideration to this notice.”16 But despite that threat, the Iranians made no effort to interfere with maritime traffic in the Gulf during the first three years of the war. In part this was because it had its hands full fending off the Iraqi army and in part because it would have been a waste of resources since Iraq exported most of its oil overland by pipeline and was therefore less dependent on tanker traffic.
But in 1984, a year during which Iraqi planes made fifty-three attacks on neutral tankers in the Gulf, Iran at last retaliated. It had become clear that in addition to using the oil pipeline into Syria and Turkey, Iraq also relied on the tankers of both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to export its oil. More importantly, both of those countries acted as conduits to supply Iraq with war materials from abroad. The Saudis accepted shipments of tanks, artillery, and other war materials at its Red Sea port of Jidda, then shipped the material by truck through Kuwait to Iraq. If not quite Iraqi allies, neither country was genuinely “neutral.” That year, therefore, Iran began attacking the tankers of Saudi Arabia and especially Kuwait using small high-speed attack boats armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a particularly low-tech threat in an increasingly high-tech war.