On May 17, 1987 the American frigate USS Stark was caught by surprise by the Iraqi Exocet attack, exposing the vulnerability of Navy surface warships to external missile strikes.
Exactly 30 years ago, on May 17, 1987, the USS Stark, the 23rd ship of the Oliver Hazard Perry class of guided-missile frigates, was incidentally struck by an Iraqi missile; the strike killed 37 crew members.
This was the first and only known case of the combat use of an anti-ship missile (ASM) against a US Navy ship. The precedent had once again proved that such weapons pose a serious threat even to the most powerful fleet.
The incident took place during the Iran — Iraq War (1980-1988). By this time the two countries had already suffered heavy casualties and were lacking in fuel, which precluded the possibility of any major offensive on the part of both rivals.
The deficit had been maintained artificially due to the so-called Tanker War kicked off by Iran and Iraq back in 1984. Since that time the two adversaries had begun to attack tankers of third countries carrying each other’s oil. Predictably, very soon the Tanker War attracted much attention from the international community and, most notably, from the United States.
To tackle the potential energy crisis the Pentagon launched the Operation Earnest Will aimed at protecting Kuwaiti-owned tankers from Iranian attacks. The USS Stark was dispatched to the region as part of the US’ effort.
On May 17 the US frigate left Manama port in Bahrain and went along the Saudi Arabian coast, toward the Iran-Iraq War exclusion boundary. Nothing hinted at any trouble when the USS Stark detected the Iraqi Mirage F-1 warplane approaching the American frigate.
At 9:05 pm the frigate detected the signals from the Mirage radar system groping for a target. The fighter jet was 27 miles away [from the warship] by that time. The USS Stark had repeatedly tried to contact the aircraft at the frequency for negotiations in international waters, but the pilot didn’t respond to the request. At 9:09 pm the USS Stark announced a combat alert while at 9:10 pm the frigate’s radio reconnaissance registered the ‘seizure’ of the warship by [the Iraqi plane’s] missile system. Right after that, the Mirage sharply turned to the left and went on the reverse course. A second later, the first Exocet missile hit the US frigate. Only, 15 seconds later the second missile stuck the USS Stark.
“It was the first serious strike on American forces in the Persian Gulf during the war between Iran and Iraq, in which the warring nations have made dozens of attacks against each other’s ships and those of third nations,” The New York Times wrote on May 18, 1987.
Citing Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims, the media outlet highlighted that the strike “appeared to have been inadvertent.”
Following the attack, Iraq made a general apology for the attack and pledged to launch an investigation into the issue.