Deficient radar equipment aboard the USS Stark, and not the crew, was chiefly responsible for the frigate's failure to defend itself against an Iraqi missile attack last May, the ship's captain said in his first extensive comment on the incident.
Capt. Glenn R. Brindel acknowledged "deficiencies in the watch" aboard the ship, but wrote, "Their actions or inactions . . . are not primary causes for Stark's failure to defend against the . . . attack.
"Unfortunately, the ship's radars and electronics did not function as advertised."
His assertion directly contradicts the official Navy findings of a board of inquiry, released in a censored version on Oct. 15.
It also raises new questions about the ability of similar frigates -- at least six ships of the same type are deployed in the Persian Gulf -- to defend themselves against such attacks.
Brindel expressed his views in a lengthy letter to the editor, printed in Monday's editions of the weekly newspaper Navy Times. The Springfield, Va.-based paper has no official connection with the Navy.
"In fairness to a brave and capable crew, I have decided to respond to your article about the investigation," Brindel wrote.
The board of inquiry, chaired by Rear Adm. Grant A. Sharp, harshly criticized Brindel and some of his top officers for failing to defend the Stark from two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi jet on May 17.
Brindel, the report concluded, "failed to provide combat-oriented leadership, allowing Stark's antiair warfare readiness to disintegrate to the point that his Combat Information Center team was unable to defend the ship."
Thirty-seven sailors died in the attack, which has been characterized by both Iraq and the United States as an accident and a case of mistaken identity.
The inquiry board recommended courts-martial for Brindel and his tactical action officer, Lt. Basil E. Moncrief, but that recommendation was set aside after the two men accepted responsibility for the incident.
Both were reprimanded, and Moncrief resigned. Brindel will soon retire as a commander.
Brindel, in his letter, did not address the question of why his crew did not attempt to warn away the approaching Iraqi fighter sooner or to fire on the jet before it could launch any missiles.
Instead, he asserted the rules of engagement that were in place at the time for Navy ships were "deficient" and too ambiguous and that other commanding officers in the Middle East Force also "were less than happy" with those rules.
Once the Iraqi jet fired its missiles, however, Brindel said the frigate's radar systems, based on what he had been taught, should have detected the two incoming Exocets.
"They did not," he wrote.