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Weapons Expert Says Stark Attack Shows Need for Missile Redesign

June 21, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The missile attack on the USS Stark, although it left 37 sailors dead, underscores a major deficiency in the anti-ship missiles relied upon by the West, according to an Australian Air Force weapons expert.

Missiles such as the French-made Exocet, which struck the Stark, and the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon do not carry a warhead sufficient to sink a modern warship with one hit, Flight Lt. P.B. Layton said.

″The goal is for one anti-ship missile warhead to destroy a surface combatant,″ Layton wrote in an article published by the U.S. Naval Institute.

He said the effect of the weapons used now is not much more than that of the bombs dropped in Midway during World War II.

Layton is currently a lecturer on weaponry at an Australian Air Force school. His three-page article assessing anti-ship missiles was published earlier this month in ″Proceedings,″ the professional magazine of the Naval Institute.

The Stark, a relatively small guided-missile frigate, was patrolling in the Persian Gulf on May 17 when it was struck by two French-made Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi warplane. Only one of the two missiles detonated, but it touched off a major fire that killed 37 sailors and injured 21 others.

The Stark’s crew did manage to douse the fire, however, and the ship’s engine room and much of its weaponry were not damaged.

The Exocet carries a warhead weighing 364 pounds, with explosives packed inside a steel casing, Layton said. It is designed to send small steel fragments showering through a ship, penetrating bulkheads and destroying internal equipment.

The Navy’s Harpoon carries a slightly larger, 510-pound warhead that is intended to destroy internal ship compartments through a concentrated blast effect, he said.

″Today, a single Western anti-ship missile is unlikely to disable a modern surface combatant,″ Layton said.

Citing earlier studies by the U.S. Navy and the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Layton estimated two Harpoons would have to hit a Soviet frigate to disable it; four would be needed to disable a Soviet missile cruiser; and five for a small Kiev-class carrier.

In addition, defensive missiles now being installed on U.S. and Soviet ships have improved to the point that multiple missiles have to be fired in hopes of one making it to the target, he said.

Thus increasing the size of the warhead on existing missiles is not really an option, because that would reduce the number of missiles that could be carried by a ship or plane.

″Rather, a new warhead needs to be designed that takes advantage of the inherent vulnerability of ships to certain types of damage,″ he said.

Layton’s answer is development of a new warhead specifically designed to create the one thing that all sailors fear most - fire.

While the Exocet that hit the Stark touched off a large fire, the missile is not designed to do that. What is needed, Layton said, is a warhead that would produce only a dozen or so large steel fragments, which would carry with them an ″incendiary″ material such as the metal zirconium.

″The intention is to ensure that after the warhead has detonated, a ship’s damage control parties would be faced with flooding, a major sustained fire and dense - possibly toxic - smoke spreading rapidly throughout the ship,″ he wrote.

″It is essential that the warheads of Western anti-ship missiles be improved, so that even if only one missile survives the defenses, it will have a high probability of sinking or disabling the target ship.″