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Sophisticated Defense Unit for Missiles Wasn’t Fired

Times Staff Writer

A central question in Sunday’s tragic Persian Gulf attack on the U.S. frigate Stark is why the ship failed to defend itself with a sophisticated system designed specifically to destroy incoming cruise missiles at point-blank range.

The Stark was equipped with the Phalanx defense system, a six-barrel Gatling gun mounted in a swiveling turret that fires a stream of 3,000 high-density uranium slugs per minute at approaching aircraft or missiles.

According to Jane’s, an authoritative reference on naval armament, the Phalanx is designed as a “last-ditch” defense against anti-ship missiles, which, like the French-built Exocet fired by an Iraqi Mirage jet, skim the sea at wave-top height at speeds of about 600 m.p.h.

Guided by computers and radar, the Phalanx is designed to function independently of other shipboard defense systems, automatically tracking both incoming missiles and its own stream of bullets to correct the gun’s aim far faster than human reflexes would allow.

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Some analysts, however, suggested that the Stark may have been incorrectly positioned to allow the 20-millimeter Phalanx cannon--mounted in a turret atop a helicopter hangar toward the rear of the ship--to hit the incoming missile if it approached the ship head-on. Under these circumstances, the ship’s superstructure would have blocked the gun’s aim.

“Obviously, at some angle (of attack) it is necessary for the ship to turn to position itself,” said one naval officer who asked not to be identified.

Navy and Defense Department spokesmen said the missile struck the ship’s hull near the waterline on the port--or left--side, in a forward area in line with the bridge. The spokesmen said it was not immediately clear whether the missile approached through the Phalanx’s field of fire.

At a Pentagon news conference Monday, senior officers said the Stark knew that targeting radar from approaching aircraft had “locked on” to the ship but may not have known that missiles had been launched.

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The Exocet that struck the ship was launched from a relatively close range of 11 to 12 miles, which gave the ship’s command between 60 and 90 seconds to react before impact. Short as it was, officials said, this time was sufficient for the Stark to have destroyed the missile.

When asked why the rapid-fire gun was not used, Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard A. Burpee, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied: “We simply don’t know the answer to that question.

“What he (the ship’s commander) was going through at that moment, we simply don’t know.”

Vice Adm. Henry C. Mustin, deputy chief of naval operations, said the Phalanx system was manned and operational, as were other defensive systems. But he said it is not yet known whether the system was switched on automatic mode, which would have left its fire-control computer free to determine when to open fire.

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“The ship saw the (Iraqi) aircraft coming at some distance . . . and issued two warnings” on an internationally recognized radio frequency, Burpee said, but he added that it was also not known whether the Iraqi aircraft received or acknowledged the warnings.

The Phalanx was conceived in the mid-1970s as a response to growing numbers of anti-ship cruise missiles that the Soviet navy was then deploying on its attack submarines and surface ships. After the 1982 Falkland Islands war, in which the British navy suffered losses to Argentine-launched Exocet missiles, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government moved quickly to purchase and deploy the Phalanx system on its warships, according to British naval sources.

The Phalanx is designed and built by General Dynamics in Pomona, Calif. Eric Solander, a company spokesman, said the company has built about 500 of the systems since its first deliveries to the U.S. Navy in 1979. He said he was authorized to say that the system is currently deployed on more than “200 ships of our navy as well as the navies of our allies.”

This is believed to be the first time, however, that the system has been exposed to actual combat conditions.

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