WASHINGTON — The French-built Exocet missile used against the U.S. frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf was the same type of missile that sank the British destroyer Sheffield in the 1982 Falklands War, killing 20 crew members.
The weapon, which has a warhead similar to a torpedo and travels just under the speed of sound, provides a "fire-and-forget" attack capability against surface ships, according to Jane's All the World's Aircraft, a standard military reference work.
Fired from up to 40 miles away, the missile skims about 6 to 10 feet above the waves as a sophisticated radar guidance system takes it to its target.
The missile directed at the Sheffield was fired from an Argentine jet 20 miles away; the one that hit the Stark may have been fired from as close as 11 miles by a Mirage F-1 plane.
The Exocet was developed by the French contractor Aerospatiale in collaboration with the French military. It was first tested in 1972. By the end of 1981, it had been ordered by about 25 nations, and by early 1986, more than 800 orders had been placed around the world, Jane's said.
It was first used by Iraqi helicopters against Iranian vessels in 1980 and then by Argentine navy Super Etendard fighters against British ships during the Falklands War.
Fifty-two of the 53 Exocets launched by the beginning of 1985 hit their targets, Jane's reported, quoting U.S. sources. The missiles have heavily damaged or sunk at least 37 freighters and tankers.
The Exocet has its own radar system that, during the early stages of its flight, can communicate with a computer system aboard the airplane to track its victim. Some Exocets home in on the radar of their targets.
The U.S. Navy incorporated many lessons from the Sheffield in building ships like the Stark, but the U.S. crew was "not ready to the extent that they did not expect an attack," one Pentagon source said.