The House Armed Services Committee said yesterday that the officers of the USS Stark failed to react soon enough to the threat of an approaching Iraqi aircraft in the Persian Gulf the night of May 17 when Exocet missiles slammed into the ship, killing 37 sailors.

"With 20-20 hindsight, the evidence shows the Stark should have radioed a warning to the Iraqi Mirage {F1 fighter-bomber} much sooner and should have turned broadside to unmask all its equipment, radar and weapons, so they could have been brought into action," Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said in releasing a preliminary report on the disaster, based on a staff field investigation.

Aspin said the committee investigation indicates that "a confluence of omissions" by the ship's personnel and the Iraqi pilot, not faulty equipment or inadequate rules of engagement, caused the tragedy.

The report said:The ship's officers did not warn the Iraqi pilot in time or take proper precautions. When the Iraqi plane was 43 miles away, a petty officer asked if a warning should be issued, but was told not to do so by the tactical action officer. Warnings were sent when the plane was 13 and 11 miles away, and "it is possible that both missiles were fired before we warned the plane," Aspin said. The Iraqi pilot failed to tune into or heed the warnings, and fired his missiles at a radar blip rather than looking to see what he was shooting at, as do Iranian and other pilots flying over a waterway crowded with ships flying many different flags. Capt. Glenn R. Brindel had just made a "head call" and was in his cabin when the missile hit. He said in a written statement he was not informed that the plane was making a close approach. An audio alarm designed to alert the ship to incoming missiles was turned off because of too many false alarms. The report said it is probable that a crewman watching a radarscope "was distracted and missed the visual signal" that should have appeared on his screen. The lookout who first detected the incoming missile was not told of the Iraqi plane, and did not tell his superiors about his first sighting. "Only seconds before impact, the lookout realized it was a missile, started screaming 'Inbound missile, inbound missile,' and hit the deck," the report said. Three days earlier, the destroyer USS Coontz had a similar experience with an approaching Iraqi Mirage. The plane turned out to have another target, a tanker, but the Coontz reacted properly, radioing its first warning 39 miles away. It turned to allow its weapons to be used against the plane, an antiaircraft missile was loaded into a launcher and chaff, designed to divert an incoming missile, was prepared for firing.

The committee stressed that it did not have all the facts when it wrote its report and termed the successful efforts of the officers and crew in keeping the Stark from sinking after it was hit "nothing short of heroic."

The probe did not include interviews with the Stark's skipper or three other key officers. But in a short written addendum to the committee report, Brindel listed questions which may form the basis of his defense if the Navy decides to court-martial him. A Navy investigation is under way.

One question, Brindel said, is why he was not informed that ship's radar was tracking the approaching Iraqi plane and had determined that it would come within 10 miles of the Stark if it continued its southerly course. Brindel also asked why the Stark's combat team "was unable to defeat this attack" and "why no missile launch was detected on the air search, fire control radars" or the receiver that is supposed to identify the plane or missile that is emitting radar signals in the area.

At 9:05 p.m. Persian Gulf time, the report said, the Stark's electronic warfare operator identified the distinctive radar signal of the approaching Mirage aircraft. But the plane's radar signals were set to search rather than to target weapons. Normally this would not set off any alarms because it is normal for planes to use radar in that manner. The operator did relay the incoming signals, however, to the combat information center where weapons would be ordered into action.

Brindel, in his written statement to the committee, disclosed that he was neither on the bridge nor in the combat center at the time, nor later when the Mirage approached closer to the ship and fired its missiles.

Brindel said that earlier, at 8:15 p.m., he had been notified by an Airborne Warning and Control System {AWACS} plane that an Iraqi plane was headed his way. But the plane was still 200 miles north of the ship at that time, he said, and was not a threat.

"I told the TAO {tactical action officer} to keep a close eye on the contact and reminded him that a number of recent Iraqi sorties had been coming further south," Brindel told the committee.

"While on the bridge, I was notified that {USS} Coontz had radar contact on this aircraft. I questioned why we did not. I believe the aircraft was approximately 120 miles out at this time. CIC {Combat Information Center} responded that Coontz was closer and weather conditions were responsible. That was the last time I heard of the contact until approximately 25 minutes later when we were hit by the missile."

Brindel disclosed that while the Iraqi plane was still at a safe distance he had ordered the ship to conduct a full-speed run, a test during which the ship is run at full power. Navy skippers told The Post that this is a highly demanding operation and seldom conducted when a ship is on patrol at night in a dangerous and congested area like the gulf.

Navy officials said it is likely that Brindel and key officers and sailors were focused on the test, studying dials and gauges for problems, rather than the approaching Iraqi plane.

"I {had} left the bridge at approximately 2100 {9 p.m.} after the full-power run had been delayed for engine adjustments. On the way from the bridge to CIC I had stoped at my cabin to make a head {toilet} call. I paused at my desk momentarily to look at some paperwork and heard and felt the first hit" of an Exocet missile. "I ran immediately then into CIC. Before I could ascertain our status or take any action, the second missile hit the ship."

The committee report said the Stark clearly was outside the zone where gulf combatant Iran had said it would operate its ships. The Iraqi government has claimed that the Stark was in that zone.