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U.S. Navy Ship Tries Unique Plan for Missile Attack

November 28, 1987

ABOARD USS RICHMOND K. TURNER IN THE GULF (AP) _ Lessons learned in the disasters that befell the British destroyer Sheffield in the Falkland Islands war and the American frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf are being tested aboard other U.S. warships facing the daily threat of missile attack.

Known in naval parlance as ″mass conflagration,″ the emergency drill varies from ship to ship, but overall it reflects a Navy recognition that sea warfare has changed dramatically since the World War II days of iron bombs and torpedoes.

The focus is on what happens in a missile attack, such as that which wrecked the Sheffield, killing 20 crewmen, during Britain’s 1982 war with Argentina, and the Stark incident last May 17 in which an Iraqi warplane hit the frigate by mistake, killing 37 crew members.

In both cases the French-built Exocet missiles struck amidships, wreaking havoc in vital areas. In the chaos, fire-fighting teams were driven out by fast-spreading flames feeding on unspent missile fuel.

Sheffield was so badly damaged it had to be scuttled. The Stark’s crew managed to save their frigate.

The two events helped spur development of defensive weapons such as Phalanx, a computerized Gatling-gun that can stop an incoming missile with a stream of 3,000 radar-guided shells a minute.

This so-called ″terminal defense″ is aboard every U.S. ship assigned to the Persian Gulf. While deemed virtually foolproof, U.S. officers recall painfully that the Stark had one but it wasn’t activated in time to knock down the missiles.

Missile attack survival has meanwhile become a fixture of periodic ″refresher training″ for warships at San Diego and Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

″They don’t have a plan,″ said Lt. Cmdr. William Tyler, the Turner’s engineer. ″They just ask ‘What would you do?’ and you’re supposed to come up with the answers.″

The 8,200-ton Turner was one of the first ships in the post-Stark buildup to know well before leaving the United States that it was headed for the gulf. That gave it about three months to work on the ″mass conflagration″ plan.

Senior officers say the plan is unique because it calls for the crew to ″evacuate″ missile-damaged areas and organize the recovery effort from outside the damaged area, rather than trying to battle the flames amid early confusion.

Based on study of the Sheffield and Stark, the plan assumes:

-A missile most likely will hit the middle of the ship, inflicting casualties and crippling communications. Computer models show this a 70 to 80 percent probability, Tyler said.

-The explosive warhead will do less damage than the unspent fuel, ″something we never heard of before Sheffield,″ Tyler said.

-The blast and fire will effectively cut the ship in two, isolating survivors at either end. The 596-foot Turner divides itself about halfway and has extra pumps and other emergency gear on the decks.

Tyler said the Sheffield and Stark crews initially were driven out by the fires and were already exhausted from smoke and effort when they regrouped for a second try.

″Neither ship had an evacuation plan but that’s what they had to do. The Stark did by accident what we’re doing according to plan,″ Tyler said.

Maximum alerts occur daily in the northern gulf where Iraqi warplanes are active. On Thanksiving Day, three Iraq F-1 Mirages in what the Turner’s commander, Capt. John D. Luke, called a ″ship attack profile,″ veered off seconds before the cruiser was to launch its anti-aircraft missiles.

A day earlier the Turner tested its missile emergency plan while plowing through rolling seas 160 miles north of where the Stark was attacked.

As bells rang and a voice shouted ″Mass conflagration 3/8,″ over the intercom, the crew ″evacuated″ the central section of the ship, taking fire- fighting and emergency gear and gathering on the bow and the fantail.

Within minutes they were organized into teams, had pumps and hoses working, and established new communications by using rifles to shoot telephone lines to a central point on the signal bridge, where a team linked them together.

Despite problems with the pumps, Luke said the 30-minute drill showed that time can be gained, not lost, by sealing off damaged spaces to contain fire and smoke as much as possible, then regrouping with available leadership and manpower for a counterattack on the fire.

″In the first 30 minutes aboard Stark, the crew was driven out by the fire and then had to start all over,″ he said. ″Under the circumstances, they did an incredible job of saving their ship. What we want to do is save that time up front.″

Added Tyler: ″The analysis of the Sheffield probably saved the Stark. Now we’re trying to learn from that.″

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