The captain of the USS Stark says his crew did not detect an incoming Iraqi missile until ``seconds'' before it ripped into the US Navy frigate last Sunday night. Capt. Glenn Brindel said at a press conference here yesterday that the Stark's combat systems were fully operational at the time, and that the ship had tracked the movements of the Iraqi Mirage F-1 jet fighter from as far as 200 miles away. Twice the US ship attempted to contact the Iraqi pilot via radio, but received no reply.
Captain Brindel said he and his officers had no reason to suspect the Iraqi jet would attack. Iranian and Iraqi jets had passed close to United States ships before, and the Stark was not in the zone where Iraq generally attacks Iranian vessels.
Thirty-five US Navy servicemen were killed and two are still missing though presumed dead in what has been termed an accidental missile attack by an Iraqi jet fighter.
A US Navy board of inquiry is expected to get under way soon to investigate, among other questions, why the Stark was unable to defend herself. President Reagan has ordered US warships in the area on a higher state of alert.
The Stark incident is the first time a US Navy ship has been attacked in the Persian Gulf. It comes at a time when the US wants to demonstrate - after its secret arms sale to Iran - that it can be a reliable ally to the moderate Arab states of the Gulf who feel threatened by Iran.
The Stark is one of seven ships assigned to the Bahrain-based US Middle East Force. It has become increasingly active in recent months in helping protect vulnerable US tanker and freighter traffic from an overflow of the Iran-Iraq war to the Gulf sea lanes. Last year almost 100 ships were attacked in the Gulf by either Iran or Iraq. Thus far in 1987, almost 40 ships have been hit.
The captain feels the attack was an accident. ``I don't think the pilot of the Iraqi fighter knew he was firing [a missile],'' Mr. Brindel said.
He noted that US naval personnel in the Gulf consider Iraqi jets as ``friendly,'' and that with the rules of engagement they were operating under, naval forces could not fire upon other aircraft or vessels unless the intruder shot first or took other threatening action.
The captain said he had been told by officers and crew members that at no time did the Stark's defensive radar or electronic sensors detect that the Iraqi pilot had fired a missile. ``We did not realize that the missile was fired until it was too late,'' Brindel said. The first and only warning came from a visual sighting of the missile by a lookout ``only a matter of a few seconds'' before the missile hit. At that point, Brindel said, there wasn't time to use the ship's sophisticated antimissile defenses.
The captain's account differed somewhat from an account given Tuesday by Rear Adm. Harold Bernsen, commander of the Middle East Force. Admiral Bernsen said crew members in the Stark's command center had detected that an Iraqi fighter pilot had activated his weapon system and ``locked on'' the Stark as a target. Brindel said his crew detected only the search radar that a fighter pilot uses to locate ships and aircraft.
Questions remain about what type of missiles were used against the Stark. The captain said the Navy had positively identified one of the missiles as a French-built Exocet, but is uncertain about the other. Officials say that the command center's electronic sensors should have picked up approaching Exocet missiles. The Navy is investigating whether the other missile might have been laser-guided and for that reason was not detected by command center personnel.
According to a Navy investigation, it appears that only one of the two missiles exploded. One missile entered the port side of the frigate about 20 feet above the water line and kept going. The missile appeared to have pierced the ship's main deck and continued through the starboard side. The other missile appears to have hit the ship from a higher trajectory.