In a Frigate's Combat Center, Time and Information Run Out Quickly

Sixty seconds is not a very long time.

It has been reported that the U.S. frigate Stark had roughly one minute's warning before it was struck by an Iraqi missile (possibly two), and there have already been questions and comments on the ship's inability to respond. To Americans conditioned by watching the National Football League, one minute may seem ample time to deal with nearly anything. But as with many aspects of life, things may not always be as they seem.

I have spent one week aboard an FFG7-class frigate (called Figs) and had the chance to watch the ship and crew at work. This does not make me an expert in the field. The experts are the people who drive the ships every day.

According to press reports, the attack on the Stark came at roughly 10 p.m.--2200 in Navy parlance. The ship was operating in restricted waters that perversely are also crowded with merchant and military traffic. There are also numerous aircraft contacts on radar. All of these are routinely called "targets," and all have to be watched because a blip on radar doesn't tell you very much. It has also been reported that at the time of the incident, the ship was moving along at low speed, hunting for mines with its sonar.

At this point, at least one Iraqi Mirage F-1 fighter-bomber is looking for a target. Suddenly it pops up, illuminating the Stark with its target-acquisition radar. The Stark detects this on its electronic support measure threat receivers. The petty officer on the board alerts the tactical action officer, or TAO, who is standing watch in the ship's combat information center. The TAO is about to become a very busy man.

First, he has to determine if there is a real threat. It may not be terribly unusual to illuminate a ship target in this way, and it is routine to spot Iraqi aircraft. Just because you are the subject of someone's radar doesn't necessarily mean that an attack is under way. Somebody might just be calibrating his electronics, or might be bored enough with his job that he wants to liven up his evening. I have been told that the Israeli air force does exactly this sort of thing--and not infrequently.

The 60-second clock has started. A radio call is sent out to warn the aircraft off: emphasis wrong target, dummy!

It's quite possible that the Stark's radar did not see the weapons separate from the launching aircraft. I have seen radar miss an aircraft carrier sitting in plain view on the horizon. The same radar will "paint" the blip nine times out of 10, but the laws of statistics mean that occasionally it will miss on two of three consecutive passes. The Exocet (if that's what it was) is a target with a body diameter of 35 centimeters.

In any case, one (or more) is inbound at 660-plus knots. The seconds are now dwindling away, whether the officers on the Stark know it or not. One can safely assume that people are now looking at the radar displays very closely indeed, but they're looking for something that isn't all that easy to see. More seconds pass before the incoming missiles switches on its homing radar.

The petty officer who made the original threat report now says that a new type of radar signal has been detected and it seems to be the seeker-head of an air-to-surface missile. The TAO now has to snap out of a peaceful evening's watch and into a war situation. He takes a few seconds to assess the situation, because he can't act until he knows what he's acting against. The clock is running.

Let's assume that the ship's bow is pointed toward the incoming missile. The ship's surface-to-air missile launcher is forward--but before the TAO can do anything with that, he must activate the system--and the ship's primary SAM-control radar is located aft on the superstructure. Here also is the close-in weapons system Gatling gun, or Phalanx. Both are blocked, or masked, by the forward superstructure and thus unable to point toward the incoming target. Therefore the TAO must turn the ship to unmasked batteries. He checks the ship's heading and gives rudder orders. Someone has to acknowledge them. More seconds.

The helmsman, sitting on the port side of the bridge, spins the wheel (actually it's a dial) hard, and reaches for the direct throttle controls. The frigate's jet-turbine engines (the same kind of engine that powers a DC-10) give it superb handling characteristics, but even so, a 3,800-ton ship does not react to the throttle the same way a car does. The Stark settles at the stern with the sudden increase in engine power, but turns slowly at first. To unmask batteries, it must turn 45 degrees. Starting at three knots, that will take at least 30 seconds.

In the combat information center, the petty officer on the electronic support measure threat receivers continues to tell the TAO that the threat is still inbound. The ship is accelerating now and starting to turn. Maybe the ship's super-RBOC rockets, which provide clouds of protective aluminum chaff, will be fired. But it will take nearly a full minute for the chaff to bloom fully. At the same time, the main fire-control radar and the Phalanx system are slewing out to port. The TAO, perhaps now with the captain at his side, is still wondering what the hell is going on.

But time has run out. The reader has had more time to read this article than the crew of the Stark had to recognize, analyze and react to a threat that came out of nowhere. With 30 more seconds, the ship would have turned broadside to the threat, allowing its batteries to bear; the chaff would have created an opaque cloud to cover the Stark and probably would have confused incoming missiles. But the crew didn't have 30 more seconds.

The Stark had been in the Persian Gulf for some time, carrying out a mission--protecting commercial vessels--older than the U.S. Navy. In fact, the first real mission our Navy had was to protect merchant shipping in the Mediterranean from the Barbary pirates. This mission, in 1803, was the one in which our Navy really made its reputation, but it was not without loss--the frigate Philadelphia was captured by the enemy in Tripoli and later destroyed by a Navy raiding party. This sort of mission is not exactly new; neither is it especially safe. Something to remember.

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