On May 17, 1987, the U.S. Navy guided-missile frigate USS Stark was on a patrol in the central Persian Gulf.
At night, Stark came under attack from an apparent Iraqi Air Force jet Aircraft. An Iraqi pilot attacked USS Stark in a Dassault Falcon 50 modified business jet armed.
All through 1985 and early 1986, director of the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) Intelligence Department,
Brigadier-General Mudher al-Farhan was collecting intelligence about the work of the Iranian tanker shuttle (‘shuttle tankers’ were oil tankers equipped with upgrade fire-fighting equipment operated by specially trained crews, they made away in convoys of four ships escorted by warships of the Islamic Republic if Iran Navy). Every day at 1800hrs, he would brief Major-General Sha’ban about related developments.
As explained by Tom Cooper & Milos Sipos in their book Iraqi Mirages The Dassault Mirage Family in service with the Iraqi Air Force, 1981-1988, at one point in time, Sha’ban realized that the IrAF was in possession of no reconnaissance photographs of any of the new loading terminals in the lower Persian Gulf. About a week after a related report was submitted to the GHQ, two officers of General Military Intelligence Directorate (GMID) arrived in Sha’ban’s office, making him an interesting offer: the intelligence service was ready to provide one of the Dassault Falcon 50 business jets operated on its behalf for a clandestine operation the purpose of which would be to ‘visually inspect’ some of the future targets. Masquerading as a biz-jet carrying `three wealthy Iraqi businessmen’, on Jun. 24,1986, the Falcon 50 made a trip from Amman in Jordan, via Iraq and Kuwait down the commercial corridor in the Persian Gulf, to Mumbai, in India while carrying three experienced Mirage-pilots and a professional photographer. Underway, it made an ‘unintended navigational error’ and thus passed as close to Sirri as possible — enabling the photographer to take a series of photographs. The Iranians noticed this overflight and this prompted them to move the T-14 Terminal further south: before this could be done, the Iraqis attacked Sirri, on Aug. 12, 1986.
Following a series of training flights, on the morning of May 17, 1987, Suzanna’s crew received the
order to load two Exocets and then transfer to Wanda AB for an operation over the Persian Gulf.
Launched early in the evening under the protection of a pair each of MiG-23s and MiG-25s, this brought the aircraft to the usual position north of Bahrain, at which the pilot turned left and then handed the commands over to his co-pilot, the one handling the Mirage-controls. After acquiring a suitable target, at 2108-2109 two Exocets were released from ranges of 35 and 24 kilometers. Both missiles hit their target — the US Navy’s frigate USS Stark (FFG-31), the senior officers of which failed to realize she was under threat. While the first missile failed to detonate, the second went off, killing 37 sailors. The lukewarm attempt by two RSAF F-15Cs to intercept the Iraqi aircraft as this was returning towards the north, ordered by the crew of one of the ELF-1’s E-3A AWACS, remained
unsuccessful (in September 1980 after Iran and Iraq declared war four USAF E-3s deployed to
Saudi Arabia to provide round-the-clock airborne radar coverage, and enhance Saudi air defences in an operation called ELF-1 which continued for over 8 years). Shaken, but understanding the
seriousness of this affair, Baghdad subsequently apologized for this unintentional attack and
compensated the Pentagon and the families of the sailors killed for all the damage caused. In cum the US entered an uneasy strategic alliance with Baghdad, and — under the excuse of ‘better coordination with the Iraqi military in order to avoid further incidents of this kind — began providing Iraq with, amongst other items, intelligence about the movement of Iranian shuttle tankers in the lower Persian Gulf.
Aftermath of USS Stark incident
Supported by the destroyers USS Waddell and USS Conyngham, the ship barely managed to reach the port of Manama in Bahrain the next day. The destroyer tender USS Acadia affected temporary repairs.
Twenty-nine U.S. Navy personnel died in the initial explosion and fire, two of whom were lost at sea. Eight others died of their injuries, while 21 were injured. The Navy’s incident review board relieved Brindel of command and recommended him for court-martial. Eventually, he received non-judicial punishment and retired early.
How could it happen that an Iraqi aircraft attacked Stark, and what could have been the motives and orders of the pilot, have remained unclear ever since?
Baghdad claimed that the warship was underway within what it declared a war zone but subsequently apologized, anyway. “The pilot mistook Stark for an Iranian tanker,” the Iraqi government stated.
While not entirely trusting this version, the U.S. government never punished Iraq for the attack — Washington accepted the apology and actually assigned blame to the Iranians, instead. Official attempts to meet and interview the pilot that flew the attack failed, despite Saddam Hussein’s promises of full access.’
American officials claimed that the Iraqi jet’s pilot was not acting under orders from his government and that he was later executed. This has been disputed, as an Iraqi Air Force officer later stated that the pilot was not punished and that he was still alive.
Washington used the incident to pressure Iran, which it later blamed for the whole situation. President Reagan said “We’ve never considered them hostile at all”, and “the villain in the piece is Iran”
On 21 June 2011, an agreement was reached between the governments of the United States and Iraq regarding claims of United States citizens against the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government established a fund of $400 million to compensate prisoners of war and hostages in the Persian Gulf War, and those killed or injured in the 1987 attack on Stark. The U.S. Department of State is establishing a mechanism to process applications for compensation.