United States officials are doing their best to play down the political significance of the May 17 Iraqi missile attack on a US Navy frigate in the Persian Gulf. Both White House and Pentagon spokesmen on Monday affirmed their belief that the attack had been inadvertent, but they promised a full investigation.
``This tragic incident underscores the need to bring the Iran-Iraq war to the promptest possible end,'' President Reagan said in brief remarks at a White House ceremony.
The ship was hit just above the waterline, forward of its superstructure. Of the 28 confirmed dead, 25 were probably asleep in a forward berthing area.
Though the exact circumstances of the attack were still unclear as of this writing, serious questions as to the state of military readiness of the crippled frigate, the USS Stark, are beginning to emerge. The ship apparently used none of its defensive systems in an effort to shoot down or electronically confuse the missile that struck it.
``Why it did not, we don't know,'' said Vice-Adm. Henry Mustin, a deputy chief of naval operations, who briefed reporters on the incident.
Pentagon officials said that late Sunday evening, local time, radar picked up one or possibly two Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet fighters crossing out of Iraq and flying south, hugging the Persian Gulf coast. Sources with military experience in the area said the radar referred to was likely to be that of an airborne warning and control system plane flown out of Saudi Arabia. An AWACS craft is airborne in the area at almost all times and is in constant communication with any nearby US Navy ships, these sources said.
Around 10 p.m. local time, the Iraqi plane or planes suddenly turned east and flew out over the Gulf, headed directly for the Stark and two other Navy surface ships in the area. Officers on the Stark saw something airborne approaching and issued two warnings to the aircraft to stay away.
It is likely the Stark knew the Iraqi attackers were ``painting'' it, looking at the ship with weapons-control radar. Though this is an aggressive act, it does not always lead to an attack, and the US ships were clearly in international waters, Pentagon officials pointed out. But from an 11-mile distance the onrushing Iraqi Mirage or Mirages suddenly loosed one or two Exocet air-to-ship missiles at the US vessels.
What then took place in the desperate minute or two it takes an Exocet to cover that distance is now at issue. Frigates such as the Stark have two main lines of defense against such missiles, which are guided by internal radar. The first is electronic.
Along with equipment that can send out electronic signals to scramble the Exocet's ``thinking,'' the Stark carried a chaffroc, a weapon that shoots out a cloud of wire or foil chaff that gives a missile a false target.
Its second defense line is a gun, a CIWS (close-in weapon system), in effect a giant machine gun that sounds like a chain saw and produces a screen of lead designed to destroy approaching missiles.
The ship had enough time to take these defensive measures and shoot down or spoof the missile, says one source with naval command experience in the Persian Gulf. ``But if they only had a minute they would have had to do everything perfect,'' he adds.
At the time of the attack, according to the Pentagon, the ship was in Condition 3, a relatively low state of alert in which one-third of the crew are on duty and all weapons are manned. The Navy has five stages of alert condition, with 1 being the highest. Admiral Mustin defended the ship's state of readiness, saying it is impossible to be at Condition 1 all the time. ``The crew has to sleep and eat,'' he said.
As a partial justification for their playing down the political significance of the attack, officials noted that this was the first time a US warship had been directly attacked in the Persian Gulf war. The Stark was part of the Mideast Task Force of the Navy, a small group of destroyers and frigates that since 1949 has ventured into the Persian Gulf to wave the US flag and deter attacks on neutral shipping.
With the proliferation of advanced missiles and aircraft to third-world nations, some Navy commanders have been anxious for years about just such an attack as occurred on the Stark. They say that in today's hostile environment, the deployment of small numbers of ships has become dangerous. Defense of the task force could be increased two ways: sending it an Aegis cruiser, with its far more sophisticated radar and antiair weapons systems, or providing it air cover.
Aircraft carriers cannot operate in the Persian Gulf, as it is both too shallow and crowded. From ``Camel Station,'' a position in the northern Arabian Sea near the entrance to the gulf, carriers could send in planes to cover most of the area.
Such an operation would stretch a carrier's ability, requiring many flights to maintain proper cover into the northern Gulf reaches. A retired flag officer says it would be preferable to be able to cover US naval forces in the area with US land-based aircraft, from bases in Egypt, perhaps, or Saudi Arabia. Unless domestic political situations change, however, it is unlikely these nations would allow the US to use their airfields.