I have the arguable privilege of having phone service at home. As a result, I recieve phone calls on a daily basis from different companies offering contract upgrades or offers which sometimes I simply fail to understand. But on only one occasion did such a phone call had me hit the roof with rage:
Phone operator: Hullo, who are you?.
The rest of the conversation is not worthy of transcript, especially some references to family members, so I´ll spare you with the details.
Curiosity in the corner stone of knlowledge, and asking questions is only just natural as long as we have a clue as to what we´re looking for. However, sometimes asking a question or simply asking the wrong one may not be the answer to our problems, particulary when our interlocutor has no idea what we´re talking about, simply is not trustworthy (Pinocchio, for example), or when the information can be made available elsewhere.
In 1987, the USS Stark was engadged by two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi Mirage F-1. I ignore if it was Pinocchio who was flying the jet, but the first line of defence, that is, interrogating the aircraft to find out about its identity and intentions, turned out to be the last, and ended in the ship being hit twice.
A lot has been said and studied, but very little has been mentioned about this first line of defence; procedures were revised but, as of today, this query still takes place and has been met with more disasters than advantages. It is this first line of defence I´d like to reflect on for next few lines.
At 2000 local time of May 17th 1987, the USS Stark was underway outside the exclusion zone declared on account of the Iran-Iraq war. At that precise moment, an F-1 took off from Shaibah airport onroute to the Persian Gulf. Not surprisingly, it was a US AWACS aircraft with a mixed crew of Saudi Arabian and American personnel who first detected the incoming aircraft when it was 200miles from the frigate. At the time, the jet was making a comfortable 550kts and flying at 5.000ft. A very simple calculation of spheric trigonometry will show the reader that, at such a distance and altitude, the ship had no way of detecting it, so for the next nearly two hours, all the information available to the ship was provided by the E-3 (the jet was following an erratic flight path).
At 2209, after the F-1 finally entered the USS STARK´s radar range, the ship makes the first radio call trying to find out who it was and what were his intentions. This happened on the 12th mile from the ship.
Please note that the first reaction took place on the 12th mile, despite having the AWACS and the ship monitor the aircraft for some time now. At this stage, it´s important to remind the reader that the F-1 was flying at 550kts, 5.000ft altitude and nowhere near an airway. Common sense dictates that this incoming aircraft could have been many things, but never a civilian aircraft.
The ship never received a CYRANO-IV signal, so it was assumed that the aircraft, whatever it may be, had no hostile intent. The truth is that the CYRANO-IV was, in fact, working beautifully and, while the ship was trying to make radio contact, the aircraft was launching the missiles. The first was launched when the jet was at 20miles and the second and 15miles from the targeted ship. In other words, by the time the frigate initiated its first reaction, both missiles had already been fired. At this point, the AWACS reported that the aircraft had veered north and was now outbound.
THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENCE.
The results of this outrageous attack are well known. It´s interesting that no tactical actions were executed on time and, the outcome would have been the same had it been an AEGIS fitted destroyer or any other ship in the world. All the stakes were on getting an answer from that aircraft as to who it was and what it was doing. So I ask myself: would it have made any additional difference if the pilot had answered and provided with a stupid and insignificant answer?. The answer to this question may seem simple, but the truth is that in modern and respected navies, there is a natural tendency to avoid escalating a situation unnecessarily, and the use of live ammunition is considered very carefully. This professional tendency has avoided many unfortunate situations in the past but, as in this case, it has also contributed to favoring them. Cdr Brindle found himself in this situation and, probably the combination of his Rules of Engagement and this professional tendency, doomed his ship. In a way, he very probably decided not to engage to avoid an escalation even though in an open-war situation he would have engaged the incoming aircraft beautifully. I, therefor, disagree with his losing command of his ship; the fact that it still remained afloat after two impacts (even though one did not detonate) is ample proof that his was an extremely efficient ship, with an excellent crew and a good captain. I don´t believe there is another ship out there which has received two missile impacts and has managed to return to base under her own steam (under her own steam!).
BUT, WHO ARE YOU?.
Sun-Tzu once said: “know yourself as you know the enemy and you shall fear not the result of one hundred battles”. In order to face a tactical situation in anti air warfare, a combination of things must be taken into account: airspace management, how military and civilian aircraft operate, and other such things.
Making a call in Emergency Frequency can be on one too many occasions, a complete waste of time. I have personaly handled two MAY-DAY situations in the last several years. Both times, the aircraft made the call on the control frequency, thus avoiding having to switch frequency; the crew has too many things to take care of at this point, especially if he has a heavy hydraulic leak (first case) or all the electronic displays go blank (second case), and can share this information to all other aircaft in the same sector which could even provide assistance. In this second case, a nearby aircraft offered to lead the broken down airplane to an airport as he had no instrumentation available (SSR, speed, altitude….). Had these calls been donde in 121.5VHF (Civilian) or 243.0UHF(military), I have no idea if either me or the surrounding aircraft would have received them.
It is very feasible that, even if you do have Emergency on guard, you may not receive the call. I do confess I was once called on guard while flying my faithfull Searchwater and initially I thought: “that can´t be for me….”. You know what?, it was, and it took two additional calls to attract my attention. Can you imagine this situation with a military jet at 550kts and 5000ft (text book profile, by the way, of an aircraft ready to launch a Bruiser)?. And what if the F-1 had received it?. This first line of defence is only valid if the aircraft is a “friendly”, and in this case, if the aircraft has indeed received the call!.
The line between an offensive and autodefence posture is extremely thin, and it cannot rely almost exclusively on a mere call, whether the aircraft answers or not. Cdr Brindle made a big gamble in an attempt to maintain Status Quo. No doubt he could have seeked some answers by studying the flight profile (550kts at 5000ft is, once again, not consisting with a civilian flight), but I´d like the reader to stand in his shoes and think about what he would have done: risk shooting down an airliner or hope for the best?. If I ever find myself in such a crossroads, I do hope my ROE´s are crystal clear. And have an AWACS or similar in the area.
There is no doubt in my mind that issueing warnings is something the crew of the Stark was well trained at, and in perfect sync with its instructions. The issue here is that the first line of defense, THIS first line of defense, failed to shift the advantage to our side. And be not mistaken; should this have happened to any of us, we would have succumbed to the same ill fated judgment given our tendency to avoid escalating situations. Further more, this will again happen again some time along the line.
The line between self defense and offensive action is very thin from time to time. To thin to rely on a simple warning call to shift the advantage to our side. In an effort to maintain the status quo, CDR Brindle took a big risk. He bet everything on a simple warning call on an aircraft which was destined to make an attack and not answer any calls whatsoever. And I seriously doubt the outcome would have been any different should the call had been made in the 30’th mile, unless it would have been complemented with additional measures aimed of achieving a correct classification (study of the aircraft’s profile, speed, correlation with published flight plan, etc).
I’m quite sure the reader will remember the terrible news of the Malaysia Airlines MH-17 which was shot down over Ucranian territory on account of a wrongful classification. What the reader may ignore is that a Virgin Airlines aircraft flying immediately behind had the fortune of being correctly identified an was thus spared. Shameful that anyone had to be shot down in the first place.