The commander of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf said Tuesday that he believes the crew of an American frigate was probably unaware that an Iraqi aircraft had fired a missile at the ship until it was too late for the vessel to defend itself.
Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, commander of the U.S. Middle East Force, also said the frigate Stark was struck by two missiles, contradicting earlier reports of a single missile.
The Stark, attacked Sunday night by an Iraqi Mirage warplane, was being towed toward Bahrain on Tuesday by the destroyer Conyngham. A damage assesment team will board the ship after it reaches port today to determine what repairs will be needed.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Air Force C-141 was en route here from Ramstein Air Base in West Germany to fly out the bodies of the Stark's dead, now reported to number 37. The bodies, on board Bernsen's command ship, the LaSalle, are to be brought ashore today by helicopter.
The 37 crewmen killed were all enlisted men. Twenty-four bodies have been identified, while 13 men are listed as missing and presumed dead. A Bahraini coast guard officer said the search for the missing men was called off early Tuesday.
After speaking with the commanding officer of the Stark, Bernsen said that what happened during the attack is still not altogether clear. He was asked repeatedly about why the Stark did not open fire on the plane and the incoming missile.
"I believe," he said, "that the crew of the Stark did not believe that they were taken under fire from a hostile aircraft, that they were in danger."
Bernsen, who was aboard the LaSalle at the time of the attack, said that although he had spoken at length Monday with the Stark's skipper, Cmdr. Glenn R. Brindel, he still was not sure whether Brindel knew that his ship had been fired on until a missile was sighted visually by a member of his crew only moments before the impact.
"I rather doubt it," the admiral said.
Bernsen said the Iraqis may have used missiles guided by laser rather than radar, suggesting that the missiles may not have been French-made Exocets, as has been widely assumed. The Exocet is radar guided and would have raised an electronic alarm on the Stark when it "locked on" to the ship.
"We don't recognize that Iraq is hostile," Bernsen said. "We are not in the gulf to shoot down friendly aircraft.
"The final decision whether to engage a target," he said, "rests with the captain of a ship."
Higher Alert Status
Bernsen said the gulf force has "taken steps to ensure a higher state of alert," which in circumstances like Sunday's might lead to the shooting down of Iraqi aircraft if they display hostile intent.
He said the Iraqis have flown more than 330 sorties in the past nine months--against ships in trade with Iran--and have fired 90 Exocet missiles, hitting 40 targets. But he said that none of the sorties had previously been directed against U.S. warships.
From the outset, the central question raised by the Stark incident has been why the captain and crew failed to use the Stark's elaborate, sophisticated defensive systems.
These include surface-to-air missiles and the Phalanx system, which combines radar and a six-barrel, 20-millimeter cannon that fires up to 3,000 rounds a minute. The Phalanx is designed specifically to bring down incoming missiles. Bernsen said it can be operational "mini-seconds" after being switched on.
According to the admiral, two Iraqi missiles apparently fired from one airplane struck the Stark seconds apart. He said both hit the ship on the port, or left, side below the bridge.
"There were in fact two missiles that struck the Stark on the port side just below the bridge, unfortunately in the crew compartments," he said. There were two separate explosions, he said.
But reporters taken out to see the Stark as it was being towed in Tuesday saw a single gaping hole. It appeared that the skin of the ship had been ruptured by an interior explosion, like a wound caused by an exiting bullet.
The missile or missiles exploded in a berthing compartment, and this accounted for the high number of casualties. Fire then spread to other spaces, knocking out the ship's combat information center. This presumably prevented the ship from taking action after the attack against the Iraqi plane, which Bernsen said returned to its base in Iraq.
Bernsen said that important areas of the ship, including the engine room, were not affected by the fire. He noted that the British destroyer Sheffield, which was hit by an Exocet missile during the Falkland Islands War in 1982, had sunk with heavy loss of life.
Bernsen seemed to take pains to avoid being critical of the Stark's failure to engage the Iraqi plane, saying it is not yet clear what information was available to the crew during the attack.
He said that Saudi Arabian patrol planes manned by American personnel had notified the Stark that an Iraqi plane was in the area and that the Stark twice advised the plane by radio of its identity. The Iraqi pilot made no reply.
"If the (pilot) was capable, he would know that it was a United States warship," Bernsen said.
The Mirage, of French manufacture, has equipment that can identify a type of ship by the signal its radar broadcasts.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said two Saudi Arabian F-15 fighters scrambled from their base after the patrol planes picked up the Iraqi jet as it headed for the frigate, and started to give chase.
But Saudi ground controllers refused to give permission to their fighter pilots to follow the Iraqi plane, telling them "to take no further action," Weinberger told the Senate subcommittee on defense appropriations.
The 453-foot Stark, which carries a crew of about 200, and the other six ships in the U.S. Navy's Persian Gulf task force are assigned to patrol the gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, its southern gateway, through which about 20% of the non-Communist world's oil passes.
Bernsen said the Stark was 60 miles off the Iranian coast when it was hit, in international waters regularly patrolled by ships of the U.S. Navy. There was no other ship within 20 miles, he said.
"We were not at war, and we were not dealing with someone who was hostile," he said.