As the tragic example of the attack on the USS Stark shows, the United States military is not nearly as trigger-happy as its critics sometimes portray it, says a key Democratic member of Congress. At the time the Stark was struck by an Iraqi missile, its orders required that it ensure it was being fired upon before it could shoot back. For reasons still to be determined, the ship took no defensive action after the missile was launched.
``The Russians shoot down the KAL 007 airliner and ask questions later. Our guys are really cautious,'' says Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Representative Aspin, speaking at a breakfast for reporters, says the information he has received indicates that the Stark was hit at a point far south of where previous ship attacks in the Gulf war have occurred. The incident was also unusual in that it took place at night. Only 10 to 12 night airplane attacks have been launched in the whole six years of the Gulf war, Aspin says.
Because of these or other factors, the officer commanding the Stark could have discounted the electronic data indicating a threat. ``He only had 90 seconds to make a choice,'' Aspin says.
Several key members of Congress have called for a reexamination of the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf, or at the very least an improvement in the capabilities of the force there.
One option mentioned is to dispatch Aegis cruisers, which have highly sophisticated radars and electronic fire control systems.
Aspin doesn't criticize sailing into the Gulf, and says sending in a billion-dollar Aegis would be overkill, as it is designed to run the defenses of an entire aircraft carrier battle group against a concerted Soviet attack. ``There's no reason a guided-missile frigate cannot deal with a threat from a country like Iraq,'' he says.
A situation such as that existing in the Gulf - dangerous, but short of war - is an extremely difficult tactical situation to deal with. At this point about all the US can reasonably do is prod Iraq to acknowledge full responsibility and pay compensation for the incident, according to Aspin.
In remarks on another subject, the House Armed Services chairman said he sees a ``logjam'' coming over this year's defense bill.
Both the House and Senate have attached arms control provisions to their versions of the bill. President Reagan opposes these provisions, and has said he will veto any legislation containing them.
But key lawmakers - notably House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas and Senate Armed Services chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia - feel the White House has played fast and loose with them on this issue in the past, and are likely to fight any compromise bitterly, Aspin says.