missile attack on battleship USS Missouri

The fact that Iraq fired an anti-ship missile at the WWII battleship USS Missouri in 1991 is not secret, but is still relatively not known in the general public. Even inside the defense community, the event is often poorly understood, or full of errors and bad timelines.

What makes this so curious is that more than any war before or since, operation “Desert Storm” was saturated with media coverage, and the two battleships in particular were among the most interesting pieces of hardware. Furthermore this event was the first time in history that a warship shot down a missile with a missile, and the last time that a battleship was attacked by any method.


(WWII ends aboard USS Missouri on 2 September 1945.)


(Iraqi “Seersucker” missiles captured during operation “Desert Storm”.)

missourifiring(USS Missouri firing in the Persian Gulf in 1991. A departing 16″ shell is visible.)

In the general media, Silkworm is typically used as a catch-all for any combloc origin shore-to-ship missile system. There were actually several variants of so-called Silkworms in use in the Persian Gulf at the start of the 1990s.

the “Silkworm”

Prior to the Sino-Soviet split, the USSR provided China with the P-15 Termit ship-to-ship missile, better known by it’s NATO reporting name SS-N-2 “Styx”. The “Styx” was already famous (or, infamous depending on your viewpoint) by 1991. In 1967 the Egyptian navy used the “Styx” to sink the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat (formerly HMS Zealous of the WWII Royal Navy) and it was also successfully employed by India in 1971, sinking the Pakistani destroyer PNS Khaibar (formerly HMS Cadiz in WWII) and damaging PNS Shah Jahan (during WWII, HMS Charity).

(Iraq’s navy also used the original sea-fired SS-N-2 “Styx” on some warships. This one is on its Soviet-made Zil transporter during a Baghdad military parade.)

For ship-to-ship use, the SS-N-2 “Styx” was put into Chinese production as the HY-1, with the reporting name CSS-N-1 “Scrubbrush”. The same HY-1 missile, when mounted on a towed trailer ashore, was called CSSC-2 “Silkworm”.

The “Silkworm” was a winged-body missile with a 519 lbs warhead. It was 19′ long with 7’10”-span wings and an aircraft-style tail. Launched from a rail, it had a solid-fuel booster underneath the tail which dropped off after launch. The main propulsion was a liquid-fueled rocket. The “Silkworm” flew a straight course at 1,000′ altitude around Mach 0.8. It was guided by autopilot until it neared it’s target, where an onboard radar seeker took over.


(A Chinese display model of the original “Silkworm” on a launch trailer.)

The “Silkworm”s seeker used conscan (conical radiating principle) which was a WWII technology. During the 1960s, the US Navy already developed a method to defeat Soviet conscan missile seekers. By broadcasting the seeker’s frequency back at it, the incoming weapon thinks the targeted is always centered, even if it is actually far off course. RCA developed the AN/SLQ-19 jammer for this purpose.


(RCA executives discussing how the AN/SLQ-19 jammer could be retrofitted aboard WWII Sumner and Gearing class destroyers still in US Navy use during the Vietnam War.) (photo via RCA)

Even without jamming, conscan had problems. The “Silkworm” needed to be pointed almost dead down the target ship’s bearing at launch, or the seeker would fail to acquire it to begin an attack and the weapon would thus just fly a straight line until it’s fuel ran out. This is one explanation of why the Iraqis had trouble with longer-ranged shots in the 1980s: as the target ship was moving, it might have already left the circular “viewing range” by the time the “Silkworm” arrived.

Iraq began receiving “Silkworm”s in the late 1970s. These “Silkworm”s were marketed as the HY-1J by China, indicating the mercury barometer was replaced by a radio-altimeter. During the opening months of the 1980 – 1988 Iran-Iraq War, some were successfully used against Iranian ships fleeing Bandar-e-Khomeini. The Iraqis discovered their Chinese-made “Silkworm”s were not as great as hoped. China claimed a usable range of 35 NM (the fuel-exhaustion maximum was 47 NM), however the Iraqis discovered that anything past 21 NM was pretty much hopeless.

The missiles themselves were often of poor manufacturing quality. They were also susceptible to HERO (hazard of electromagnetic radiation to ordnance) meaning if stored near a powerful radar they might spontaneously explode.

A persistent problem was the new radio-altimeter which was supposed to have been an improvement; a design flaw meant that if it momentarily lost track of the sea’s surface, it crashed the missile. The “Silkworm” was marketed by China with a 70% hit probability, but Iraq said that 9 out of every 10 fired during 1980 had missed. After 1983 deliveries were of the “Seersucker”. The last known Iraqi use of the actual “Silkworm” was on 3 September 1986 when seven were fired at the al-Omayeh oil platform which Iran was using as an observation post. Shortly thereafter, an Iraqi unit destroyed its remaining “Silkworm”s as their launch site was overrun to prevent their capture.

the “Seersucker”

The weapon involved in the USS Missouri incident was actually a CSSC-3 “Seersucker”, also called HY-2 and now C-201 in the modern Chinese nomenclature system.


(Captured Iraqi “Seersucker” aboard an American M915 truck in 1991.)

Based on the “Styx” / “Scrubbrush” / “Silkworm”, the “Seersucker” continued the same concept, layout, and shape of the earlier weapons. However it was slightly larger, a bit faster, more longer-ranged, and had internal improvements. An effort by the CASC 3rd Academy in China rectified the sloppy craftsmanship found in the “Silkworm”.


(Original Chinese factory stenciling on a captured Iraqi “Seersucker” in 1991.) (Associated Press photo)


(Captured Iraqi “Seersucker” at Kuwait City’s merchant harbor after Desert Storm, being made ready for transport to the USA.)


(Captured “Seersucker” at the al-Faw launch site inside Iraq, which was manned by the 3rd Naval Infantry Brigade during Desert Storm. The Chinese designation HY-2G, more common, was China’s general built-for-export code. HY-2J, seen here, was used specifically to quickly fill Iraqi orders from Chinese “Seersucker”s already in stock during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. This missile is defueled and judging by the open access panels, had interior components extracted by the Americans.) (official US Defense Department photo)

The “Seersucker” weighed 3¼ tons and had a 1,160 lbs warhead. It was of aluminum construction. The nose was a dielectric cap over the seeker’s radar dish, followed by the electronics section, a compressed air bank (to operate the tail / wing surfaces and to force propellant and oxidizer out of their tanks), the warhead, the propellant tank, the oxidizer tank, and the Isayaev motor.


(A captured Iraqi “Seersucker” with a cracked nose cap, which would have rendered it unusable.)


(The warhead and compressed air section of a Polish navy SS-N-2 “Styx”. The one in a “Seersucker” would be larger but generally similar.)

Compared to the “Silkworm”, the “Seersucker” cruised at a lower altitude (340′ – 680′) which was nowhere near the sea-skimming performance of the French Exocet or American Harpoon, but less detectable on radar than the “Silkworm”s altitude of nearly a fifth of a mile high. It had much better range, with up to 100 NM being absolute fuel exhaustion but 51 NM generally considered the realistic usable limit. The “Seersucker” cruised between 581 – 615 kts, depending on which phase of it’s flight it was in and it’s altitude. The airframe had a Mach 0.9 limit, which equates to 596 kts at 1′ altitude in 0% humidity and increasing in equivalent knots as altitude increased.

The main improvement was to the seeker. The conscan model of the “Silkworm” was replaced by a modern monopulse radar on the “Seersucker”, making it less vulnerable to jamming.

Just like the “Silkworm”, the “Seersucker” was fired off a trailer. The trailer had to be as even as possible relative to sea level; any degree of variation cost the weapon some range and at 10° variance, it could not launch. The rail did not have to be pointed at the target, but as close as possible was preferable. The USSR’s original “Styx” handbook recommended that the missile not be expected to make turns exceeding a constant 3° at any point of it’s flight, to minimize stresses on the airframe. Presumably the “Seersucker” had the same.


(British troops with a captured launcher.)


(Reloads were carried aboard this type of trailer, which could not fire them. This one was found inside a civilian warehouse in Basra after the 2003 conflict, not Desert Storm. A separate crane was needed to move reloads from this trailer onto a launcher.)

The “Seersucker” used a SPRD-30 solid-fuel booster, with a flapper in the exhaust which separated it off the missile when it burnt out.


(The booster and it’s flapper shown on a Chinese display HY-2.)


(The booster on an Iraqi “Seersucker”, atop a reload trailer.)


(Flipped upside down, this “Seersucker” shows the rear embrasure where the booster would have been fitted. This one particular missile has quite an odd story; it was buried by the Iraqis during the Hussein era for unknown reasons and unearthed in 2010, briefly being misidentified as a bomber-dropped AS-5 “Kelt”.) (Associated Press photo)


(The main engine blew through a frangible cover in the weapon’s rear. This “Seersucker” was captured by the USA during Desert Storm.)

At around 4 NM from the target’s expected location, the autopilot shut off and the seeker’s radar began operating. After locking on, the “Seersucker” gradually descended to between 7′ – 18′, until it hit the target.

Most military literature examines just the combat traits of the “Silkworm” and “Seersucker” without looking at the problems their fuel caused on the ground. The engine of these missiles used a binary liquid fuel.


(A heavily redacted intelligence document from December 1990 about Chinese binary fuel sales to Iraq. Norinco, the PRC’s arms conglomerate, is misspelled.)

The propellant was a chemical called TG-02 by Iraq or by its common trade name, Tonka. Based on the WWII German R-Stoff, it is a 50/50 blend of xylidine and triethylamine.

The oxidizer was IRFNA (halogen-inhibited red fuming nitric acid). An extremely dangerous chemical, IRFNA severely burns skin on contact, while its vapor causes blindness and permanent lung injury. IRFNA quickly eats through military uniforms, rubber sheeting, and protective gloves. Prolonged contact will destroy plastic and corrode metal. IRFNA’s sunlight decomposition byproduct, nitrogen dioxide, is itself another poison.


(This IRFNA storage “egg” was found in Kuwait City after Desert Storm. The red circle marks a bullet hole, the white discoloration is escaping IRFNA vapor eating through the steel tank from the outside in.) (photo via Gulflink)

Any contact between the propellant and oxidizer, even spilled drops on the ground, immediately forms the binary fuel which can explode in ambient air. Therefore extreme care needs to be taken when fueling a “Seersucker”.  In theory, the missile could be left fueled however the Iraqis discovered that time and travel, such as towing the trailer repeatedly, degraded the Chinese coating in the missile’s oxidizer tank causing it to leak at its seams. (The Chinese themselves guaranteed the coating for only two years). Therefore if possible, they were fueled only before use was expected. The oxidizer was stored in “eggs” coated inside with a fluoride lacquer as seen in the photo above.

Countries which operated the “Seersucker” – Iraq by no means alone – discovered that the one-time investment in the actual missile was modest, but the ongoing cost of training men to fuel it and maintaining the necessary fuel infrastructure was far greater.


(Australian EOD specialist defueling a captured “Seersucker” a month after Desert Storm ended. Wearing a full hazmat suit, he power-flushed the propellant and oxidizer tanks, and then refilled them with water.) (photo via Royal Australian Navy)

Iraq’s coastal defense missiles during operation “Desert Storm”


(Iraqi “Seersucker” sites in 1991, with launcher locations underlined.) (map via Bing)

In 1990 American intelligence estimated that Iraq had 7 operational launch trailers, 10 to 15 reload carry trailers, and between 50 to 70 “Seersucker” missiles.

The coastal defense force’s central facility was at Umm Qasr, which was also the Iraqi navy’s GHQ. Here were 16 hardened bunkers each sized for 4 –  6 missiles. This alone would be enough for most of the “Seersucker” inventory however the bunkers also housed reload SS-N-2 “Styx”s used by Iraqi warships. A central distribution point for oxidizer and propellant was also here.


(One of the Umm Qasr bunkers a month after Desert Storm ended. A derelict SS-N-2 “Styx” is outside and a “Seersucker” under tarp just inside the door.) (Royal Australian Navy photo)

The only launch site in Iraq proper was on the al-Faw peninsula. In 2011, retired LtGen. Abid Mohammed al-Kabi said this site was elaborate, including buried underground cables by which “Seersucker”s could be fired remotely.

After Iraq overran Kuwait in August 1990, the Iraqi military began moving coastal defense missiles into the country, which Saddam Hussein wished to annex as a new province of Iraq. An interesting facility was the al-Badiwayah Girls School Of Science  (commonly just called “girls school site”) in Kuwait City’s southern suburbs. This served as a HQ with reload “Seersucker”s, bulk oxidizer and propellant storage, command radios, and a handling crane. The site offered zero military benefit; it was unhardened and 5 miles driving distance – some of it on residential side streets – to deliver missiles to any of the closest launch sites.



(Taken by a U-2 reconnaissance plane, this shows the site with north to the right. The highlighted tank was feared to contain mustard gas, but actually contained rocket fuel. The black splotch in the lower left is smoke from burning oil wells.)

Clearly the site was chosen because the Iraqis predicted (correctly) that the USA would not bomb a civilian schoolhouse.

Iraq established temporary “Seersucker” launch sites along the Kuwaiti coastline and on Failaka island, which saw its civilian population expelled. After the start of operation “Desert Storm” in January 1991, the United States moved quickly to destroy launchers from the air.

By 20 February 1991, the USA felt it had eliminated all seven mobile launchers (including one which USS Missouri destroyed via 16″ gunfire) and a good percentage of the missiles. Clearly this was wrong, as evidenced by the attack on USS Missouri five days later, after which additional launchers were destroyed. Even after this, two mobile launchers were still captured intact meaning either Iraq started the war with many more launchers than estimated, or, that airstrike assessments had been optimistic.

The flip side of this was that of the estimated 50 – 70 “Seersucker” missiles, the only examples fired the whole war were the two against USS Missouri described below. It appears that the Iraqis had massive problems handling the oxidizer and propellant, as described earlier. Starting in December 1990, “Seersucker”s were emplaced as decoys, often in a very amateurish way. For example it appears that the battery on Failaka was never even partially operational and instead completely decoys.


(Taken by a F-14 Tomcat off USS Ranger (CV-61) at 25,000′, this shows the silly beach defense scheme on Failaka: a World War One-style slit trench, followed by three “Seersucker”s lined up like sitting ducks on the sand (the top one having tipped over). The Tomcat pilot identified the missiles as decoys.)


(This “Seersucker” was placed on a makeshift ramp of welded rods, set on loose sand. It seems impossible that the missile could have been fired this way.)


(This “Seersucker” was strafed by American aircraft but did not blow up, meaning it had neither warhead nor fuel inside.)

During the last week of February 1991, the launch sites in Kuwait were overrun, along with the “girls school site”. Here six “Seersucker” missiles were captured intact along with a reloading crane, two diagnostic carts, a pair of reload trucks, an electric generator, fueling hoses, and an IRFNA bulk storage tank.


(This photo was taken as evidence for war crimes charges due to using a civilian school in an occupied country for military purposes. Nothing ever became of it.)


(The missiles were stored using the courtyard walkway to shield them from air reconnaissance.)

As a side note, the building is still used as a school as of 2019. It is now called al-Nasser School.

Iowa class: anti-missile defensive systems

When the Iowa class recommissioned in the 1980s, they were upgraded with new systems to deal with the anti-ship missile threat that had evolved while they were mothballed.


(One of USS Missouri’s Phalanx mounts being test-fired during operation “Desert Shield” in 1990.)

The Mk15 Phalanx CIWS (close-in weapon system) is centered around a six-barrelled, gatling-type M61 20mm gun. Atop it is a radome with two radars, one that acquires the target and another that tracks the gap between the incoming missile and the outgoing bullets, with a computer adjusting aim until the two meet. The rate of fire is 3,000rpm; as the late-1980s version of the gun only held 989 rounds, these were typically fired in 220rds bursts.


(Mk149 20mm round for the Mk15 Phalanx. As it is a APDS design, the muzzle velocity is irrelevant but the bullet travels at 3,650fps at the moment of sabot discard. Each round cost $30 in 1991 money.) (drawing via General Dynamics)

The battleships carried four Phalanx mounts. The system is completely automated and unmanned. The computer rejects any target outside the gun’s 2¾ NM effective range, rejects any target with an opening range relative to the host ship, rejects friendly SAMs leaving the host ship, and automatically engages anything else. There is no IFF system so care must be used if friendly aircraft are in the area. There are three modes; dormant, standby, and auto-engage.


The heart of the battleship’s new electronic warfare (EW) system was the AN/SLQ-32(V)3 of which two were carried at the top of the conning tower. This system had two functions. The basic AN/SLQ-32 detected faint radar emissions of an incoming missile, so even if it was missed by radar and visually, the ship would be alerted. The more expensive (V)3 version aboard major combatants also had a function called Sidekick. This broadcast a ghost radar image of the battleship further away, the idea being that a missile would veer towards the imaginary “sidekick” and ignore the real ship.


The Mk36 SRBOC (Super-Rapid Bloom-Off Chaff) system is an automated launcher for chaff rockets. Invented during WWII, chaff is strips of thin foil to blind radar. On the battleships, the SRBOC launchers and AN/SLQ-32(V)3 systems could each operate alone or in partnership.

All 20mm and 40mm AA guns of WWII were removed. During WWII, the ten Mk28 Mod2 twin 5″ turrets had proven useful against Japanese warplanes. However during the 1980s refits four of the ten turrets had been removed and the remaining six were considered bombardment artillery only with no AA potential. Had the battleships remained in service through the 1990s, the US Navy proposed to replace two of the four 5″ gun director structures with digital devices to measure the ballistics of outgoing 16″ shells to improve the main gun’s aim.


(USS Missouri’s Mk28 Mod2 twin 5″ turrets are outlined by the muzzle flash of the forward Mk7 16″ weapons, during a mission against Iraqi army targets in early February 1991. This photo also shows a Phalanx in the upper left and a Bushmaster on the deck edge. )

prelude to the events

The US Navy already had some experiences with coastal defense missiles in the Persian Gulf. During the 1988 “Praying Mantis” operation, Iran fired a pair of “Silkworm” missiles at USS Gary (FFG-51) which were defeated by the frigate’s countermeasures. A pair of Iranian “Silkworm”s were also fired at two civilian barges being leased by the American military; both of these missed on their own.

As USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin entered the Persian Gulf as part of operation “Desert Shield” in 1990, the biggest foreseen threats to the WWII battleships were not the coastal missiles, but rather mines and air-fired anti-ship missiles.


(This was, during the “Desert Shield” period, the most-feared threat in the US Navy: an Iraqi air force Mirage F.1EQ with drop tank, AM.39 Exocet anti-ship missile, two Magic air-to-air missiles, two Remora jammer pods, and a second drop tank to balance the Exocet. Iraq made devastating use of the Mirage & Exocet combination during the 1980s against civilian tankers in the Persian Gulf.)

Only one Coalition warship, HMS Brazen, was targeted by air attack during the whole war and the Iraqi planes were shot down by American fighters far away. The Exocet threat simply failed to materialize.


(This was the very first mine spotted by USS Missouri, on 9 January 1991, a week before “Desert Storm” began. It is either a M-08 or a MYaM, both Soviet moored contact weapons. The M-08 was a WWII mine used by the USSR into the 1960s and exported to both Iran and Iraq; Iranian examples damaged the supertanker M/V Bridgeton in 1987 and frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in 1988. The MYaM was a smaller Cold War model exported to Iraq. If it was a M-08, it could have been left over from the 1980-1988 war, having broken free of a rusted-through chain. Alternatively if it was of either type, it might have been freshly planted by Iraq in 1991; as Saddam Hussein instructed his navy to release intentionally-cut, free-floating mines into the Persian Gulf, to drift in the currents until they happened to hit whatever they hit or washed ashore. An alert watchstander on the battleship spotted the mine and a smallboat was dispatched to destroy it via demolition charge.)


(The LUGM-145 was another cheap moored mine, often released in the free-floating style described above. During Desert Storm, USS Tripoli (LPH-10) hit a LUGM-145, knocking the ship out of the conflict with $3.5 million in damage.) (photo via Royal Australian Navy)

A lot of the Iraqi floating mines facing USS Missouri in 1991 were quite honestly, not much better than the Imperial Japanese Navy mines facing the battleship in 1945. For example the LUGM-145 shown above is very similar in style, function, and explosive payload to the Shimose Type 88 and still used the same detonation method; “hertz horns” which were hollow metal protrusions that, when bumped by a ship, crushed a glass vial of acid setting off the warhead.


(Mines were eliminated by a smallboat planting a C4 charge. This mine was spotted by USS Missouri and destroyed. One of the battleship’s escorting frigates is in the distance.)


(The al-Muthena was an Iraqi designed mine. This one was disarmed and then dissected, as no intelligence had previously been available on the al-Muthena.)

The Iowa class’s underwater protection in WWII was to defeat both mines and torpedoes. The lateral anti-torpedo portion, which differed from other WWII battleship classes worldwide, had an outer shell of steel, then first and second internal steel bulkheads, and the lower part of the lower belt armor forming a third bulkhead. It was expected that a torpedo would penetrate the outer shell and one or more of the first two bulkheads, but hopefully not the belt. The final barrier was a “holding bulkhead” that was supposed to deform inwards from the resulting shock as opposed to rupturing.


This was not ideal but contrary to how it is described today, the system was not a “mistake”. The US Navy wanted a heavily-armored battleship class as fast as cruisers, carrying 16″ guns, and still able to use the Panama Canal. So some compromises were necessary. Still, during WWII the system was a concern. Had the last ship of the class, USS Kentucky (BB-66) been finished a modified set-up would have been used and the never-built Montana class had a different concept entirely.

None the less, in 1991 the Iowa lateral system would have certainly sufficed against floating Iraqi contact mines. Iraq had no submarines so the performance against torpedoes was irrelevant.

During WWII several navies made limited use of seabed mines. As their name suggests, these sit on the bottom and are triggered by the target ship’s noise or magnetic influence as it passes overhead. The detonation is directed upwards and creates a shockwave of water that impacts the bottom of the ship. Against these, the Iowa class had a triple bottom.

Compared to WWII, modern seabed mines had greatly increased in sophistication and destructive power. The MN103 Manta, shown below, was sold to Iraq by Italy during the 1980s.


(A pair of captured Mantas (blue) with LUGM-145s for comparison. USS Princeton (CG-59) was damaged by a Manta during Desert Storm.)

The Manta could be laid by ships or pushed out of helicopters, in depths from the surfline to 334′. It had a 375 lbs warhead of HBX-3. The Manta’s shape was designed to appear invisible to sonar and it remained armed for a year or more.


(photo via All Hands, the US Navy’s magazine)

With high-performance bottom mines like the Manta, there was a concern with the Iowa class. Depending on the lay depth and the target’s draught, not only would the seawater shock wave slam into the keel but perhaps even the rising blast column itself could penetrate the ship’s bottom. On the Iowa class, the forward turret’s barbette armor tapered at the bottom to follow the sleek hull shape. Thus, that turret’s powder room had limited protection to a blast directly below. The US Navy was aware of this when it recommissioned the class in the 1980s however 40+ years after their construction, there was no way to alter them for this modern threat.

Neither USS Missouri nor USS Wisconsin struck mines of any type during the war so the issue was moot. Both operated consistently alongside modern mine warfare vessels.


(A minesweeper passes by USS Missouri during operation “Desert Storm”.)

The attempted missile strike

In the most simple and commonly quoted version of this story…

USS Missouri was bombarding Iraqi ground targets inside occupied Kuwait when a “Seersucker” was detected. The battleship launched SRBOC chaff rockets, while HMS Gloucester fired two Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the “Seersucker”, destroying it. Meanwhile the frigate USS Jarrett activated it’s Phalanx CIWS which engaged USS Missouri‘s chaff clouds, sending 20mm rounds downrange which then struck the battleship.

This version contains truth but is a distortion and conflation of two separate events, as described below.


On 24 February 1991, USS Missouri (BB-63) was in the northern Persian Gulf, along with the frigate USS Jarrett (FFG-33), the British destroyer HMS Gloucester, the British frigate HMS London, and the minesweepers HMS Cattistock and USS Avenger (MCM-1). The purpose of the SAG (surface action group) was to make Saddam Hussein believe that an outflanking amphibious assault was imminent, thereby tying down Iraqi army divisions in northern Kuwait and precluding them from reinforcing forces further south, who were getting steamrolled by advancing US Marines.


(USS Missouri firing a 16″ salvo, as seen from HMS Gloucester.)


(HMS Gloucester)


(USS Jarrett)

At 23:00 on 24 February, the SAG was ordered to make a feint against the area of the al-Shuaiba Docks, which was one of the assets the Iraqis felt would be a prime target for an amphibious assault to seize. This operation, which began around 00:55 on 25 February, involved USS Missouri shelling targets inland with 16″ gunfire, a wave of helicopters which would turn around short of the beach, and dummy radio chatter to make the Iraqis believe a landing was starting. USS Missouri was on a southerly course, with the starboard side thus facing landward, unmasking all nine 16″ barrels.


(Taken by USS Missouri’s Pioneer UAV about 36 hours before the first “Seersucker” incident, this shows an Iraqi ammo bunker far inland taking a direct 16″ hit.)

By 03:00 on 25 February, smoke from oil wells the Iraqis had set ablaze reduced ambient nighttime light to nearly nothing and the sky was an inky black void. Muzzle flashes from USS Missouri‘s 16″ guns were clearly visible on the horizon from shore; which was about 11 NM at it’s closest point and 14 NM from known Iraqi observation points. Even without radar, the Iraqis could thus triangulate the rough bearing of the battleship, which is enough to pretarget a “Seersucker”. As their front to the south was rapidly collapsing, the Iraqis would have little reason not to use whatever missiles they had at this opportunity. A Royal Navy captain later remarked that he felt certain the battleship would take incoming missiles that night.

At 04:52 on 25 February, a pair of “Seersucker” missiles were launched. The launches were visually observed by an A-6 Intruder attack plane, who reported two distinct plumes from the area of al-Fintas, which was the northernmost “Seersucker” site south of Kuwait City. One of the missiles immediately flopped into the sea, with the other leveling off and heading east towards USS Missouri.

Because of the way the Coalition’s radio network was set up, the advance warning never made it to the battleship or its escorts. The Intruder’s transmission was sent to USS Valley Forge (CG-50) and to the NavCent GHQ ashore, both of which were not tied in to the LINK system used locally by the SAG.

The incoming “Seersucker” was instead detected via radar aboard HMS Gloucester at 21 NM range, and classified as an anti-ship missile based on its flight path and lack of transponder. At the weapon’s incoming speed (Mach 0.89), the British destroyer had under a minute to classify it as hostile, decide to engage, and then do so. This was not a simple decision as the “Seersucker”s initial detection point was in an air lane used by Coalition warplanes returning to Saudi Arabia after bombing Iraq. If the decision was wrong, a friendly plane would be shot down. The decision to fire was made 43 seconds after the “Seersucker” was first detected.

The attack came at the worst possible time. Both HMS Gloucester and USS Jarrett were ‘front-enders’, meaning that their main AA weapon (Sea Dart GWS.30 and RIM-66 Standard SAMs, respectively) were fired off launchers ahead of their bridge, with a field of fire limited roughly 100° to either side of the bow. The plan for defending the SAG called for at least one escort to maintain a north/south heading unmasking their SAM launcher to the west at all times, however, at this precise moment both were maneuvering and both were headed due east, preventing use of their SAMs. This simultaneous turn was mandated by the width of the lane swept of Iraqi sea mines.


(Launch of a Sea Dart SAM.)

Aboard USS Missouri, the “Seersucker” had been spotted by visual lookouts and correctly classified as an incoming missile. The battleship activated the electronic warfare suite which resulted in SRBOCs being fired and (presumably) the jammers coming online. The battleship’s four Phalanxes also were switched from standby to auto-engage, however they did not fire. There are several possibilities: the Phalanxes may have not had sufficient warm-up time before the missile was out of range again; or they may have been blotted out by the battleship’s own chaff; or the “Seersucker”s flight path might have already been at an obtuse angle to USS Missouri by the time the CIWS radars acquired it, meaning the Phalanxes would reject it as an opening-range non-threat.

HMS Gloucester initiated a hard turn to unmask the Sea Dart launcher. Firing nearly “over the shoulder” to starboard, two Sea Darts were launched, of which one hit the Iraqi missile. The entire event took 89 seconds.

The interception range varies with the account given; ranging from 2¾ NM to 4 NM away from HMS Gloucester, and 4 NM to 7 NM away from USS Missouri. Likewise the altitude of the intercept is debated, with USS Jarrett‘s history listing it at 375’ to visual witnesses aboard HMS London who estimated between 680′ – 1,000′.


(The interception of the “Seersucker”, the first time in history that a warship in real combat used a missile to shoot down a missile.)

HMS Gloucester‘s Phalanxes also activated, however they did not engage, presumably as the “Seersucker” did not enter the range envelope before it was shot down. USS Jarrett‘s Phalanx did not fire as the “Seersucker” was outside of the range envelope. HMS London was also out of SAM range (this was later disputed by the US Navy) and the minesweepers had no weapon capable of engaging a missile.

Before its intercept the “Seersucker” had already passed astern of USS Missouri. Eyewitnesses aboard both the battleship and USS Jarrett recall the missile veering sharply northwards seconds before its destruction, presumably distracted by the battleship’s chaff or jammers. However the tactical track aboard HMS Gloucester showed it ignoring the chaff and maintaining a steady course to the end, albeit one which was not going to hit anything.

The closest vessel to the missile’s flight path at any point was actually the minesweeper HMS Cattistock which it almost directly overflew. Having failed to lock on to either the closer minesweeper or the huge battleship, it appears that the “Seersucker”s seeker was possibly defective.

The A-6 Intruder which had first observed the “Seersucker” launches attacked the area where the launch plumes originated with a dozen Mk20 Rockeye cluster bombs.


(Painting of the event by the artist John C. Roach.)

Quite remarkably, during the post-2003 American occupation, an Iraqi veteran came forward claiming to have been part of the 1991 event. He insisted that three “Seersucker” missiles had been fired at an American battleship. There is no evidence whatsoever to back up a third missile; the A-6 observed only two launch plumes of which one quickly crashed, and both USS Missouri and HMS Gloucester tracked only one missile inbound. On the other hand, the man knew the correct date of the attack and it is unclear what he had to gain by lying. If a third “Seersucker” was fired, it missed by such a huge margin that HMS Gloucester never even detected it as a threat.


After sunrise on 25 February 1991, one of USS Missouri‘s RQ-2A Pioneer observation drones located another “Seersucker” launcher which the Intruder had missed. US Army OH-58D Kiowa helicopters, temporarily operating off USS Jarrett‘s helipad, destroyed it with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Later during the morning of 25 February, helicopters off USS Okinawa (LPH-3) scoured the area for “Seersucker” launchers, finding decoys but no more launchers. The Iraqis appeared to be continuing preparations to repel an amphibious assault.


(This unusual diorama was found inside a school in Kuwait City after the city was liberated, and was apparently some sort of anti-amphibious battle plan.) (official US Navy photo)


During the late afternoon of 25 February, USS Missouri returned to the same area (actually, almost exactly the spot where HMS Gloucester had been the previous night) to bombard targets ashore. With HMS Gloucester having departed, now along with the battleship were the minesweeper HMS Atherstone, USS Jarrett again, and the destroyer HMS Exeter which was acting as the central node of the flotilla. HMS Exeter received a voice report from HMS Atherstone that the launch plume of an anti-ship missile had been observed ashore.


(HMS Atherstone)

In fact there had never been a missile. The tall upwards flame which HMS Atherstone observed ashore was Iraqi troops dynamiting an oil well to start it on fire. Of course this was not known until after the event.

Using the LINK system, HMS Exeter notified the other ships that a probable missile was inbound. USS Missouri fired off SRBOC rockets to distract the presumed threat. The SRBOCs came down inbetween the battleship and USS Jarrett, quite close to the frigate, which had already set its Phalanx to auto-engage. The Phalanx immediately slewed to starboard, locked on to one of the SRBOC chaff clouds which it mistook as a threat, and fired a 220rds burst in the direction of the chaff cloud. A moment later, USS Missouri‘s next SRBOC chaff volley detonated in the sky, this time nearly directly on top of USS Jarrett. The frigate’s Phalanx again started firing to starboard, however this time a sailor aboard USS Jarrett shut the weapon off mid-burst, after 100 rounds had been fired.

This sequence and the placement of the ships resulted in a nearly straight line-of-fire 2¾ NM long from USS Missouri, through battleship’s chaff clouds, to USS Jarrett.

In almost all versions of the event, it is said that 20mm rounds from USS Jarrett‘s Phalanx impacted USS Missouri. The most commonly quoted number is 4 individual rounds, which (even given the dispersion field at the extreme end of the Phalanx’s range) seems very low given the hundreds fired by the frigate. One round penetrated a 3/8″ steel plate and one internal bulkhead into a bunking area. The most commonly repeated location is “…by the plaque” (the deck marker where WWII ended, starboard and slightly aft of the B 16″ turret). If so, the spot could only be compartments #1-74-1-L or #1-78-3-L which are actually directly under the plaque, and after the 1980s refits were junior officer living spaces. Less the captain’s stateroom (#1-89-1L) any other compartment is not a bunking space, not in that area, or under massive armor. At least in the unclassified realm, there is no known photo of the actual damage.

Another round apparently hit a piece of equipment stowed on deck, slightly injuring one sailor via a shard of flying plastic – although sometimes the injured sailor is recalled as being inside the ship, struck by shrapnel from the round that penetrated the bunking spaces. Other accounts mention 20mm rounds “bouncing off” which would likely mean hits to the belt or a 16″ turret.

Most points are generally agreed on by those recalling the events. But even here there is vagueness. One example is an interview of a former USS Missouri crewman (who’s name is redacted, but described as “Executive Officer”). Done seven years after Desert Storm by a group investigating depleted uranium exposure to American servicemen, the record contains a number of remarkable points. The document incorrectly conflates the two separate events described above into one continuous sequence, incorrectly describes the liquid-fueled missile as a “ramjet”, and most surprisingly claims that USS Missouri engaged the Iraqi missile with 5″ gunfire. This last point is, quite frankly, very difficult to accept as reality. In fairness to the interviewed officer, the report is a “summary” vice verbatim transcript, and it is unknown if the writer chose to take editorial liberties.

The US Navy’s brief statement of the event, which was released 6½ months after Desert Storm ended, mentions “superficial damage”, but specifically states no injuries. This seemingly conflicts with the story of the nameless sailor cut by shrapnel, unless his wound was so minor as to not be considered an official casualty.


To further confuse things Gen. Sir Peter de la Billière, CinC of British forces in the war, stated that 20mm rounds from a Phalanx aboard HMS Gloucester had struck USS Missouri which does not agree with any other account. USS Jarrett‘s official history of the account states that a SH-60 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter was also in the area and deployed chaff, which is not mentioned by any other source.

How would the “Seersucker” perform against USS Missouri had it hit?

This seemingly simple question has an incredibly complex answer. The differences between a WWII battleship shell and a Cold War anti-ship missile are numerous…a shell is heavier, much denser, but has less explosives inside and loses kinetic energy in flight. A missile is flimsy, but contains a very large warhead and as it is under power, it hits the target at full speed.

The first missile, if it can be called that, fired at American warships was the Japanese Okha manned suicide rocket, none of which hit a battleship during WWII.


(A captured MXY7 Okha being disassembled at Yantan AFB in Okinawa near the end of WWII.)

To answer the battleship vs missile question for a weapon in the 1990s it is first preferable to understand the armor the Iowa class was built with during WWII, and the ordnance it was designed to defeat in the 1940s.

WWII battleship shells were either High-Capacity (HC) or Armor-Piercing (AP). HC, as the name implies, had a high capacity of explosives and were intended for bombardment. (Most of the rounds USS Wisconsin and USS Missouri fired in 1991 were HCs.) AP shells had a much smaller amount of explosive filler, but were much heavier, more dense, and designed to puncture armor before exploding.

A variation was APC (Armor-Piercing: Capped). These had a hollow metal skin called the windshield to make them aerodynamic, followed by a “cap” of soft iron atop the hardened steel penetrator. The cap’s job was to deform upon impact and allow the main penetrator to pass through it into the target’s armor. This “stuck” the hit at an optimal angle reducing the chances that the penetrator would ricochet or shatter. It also prestressed the armor an instant before the penetrator hit it, increasing the chances that the armor would crack.


(Diagram of a Japanese Type 91 16″ shell of IJN Nagato which was studied during the occupation of Japan. It shows the windshield (1), cap (3), penetrator (4), and TNA explosive (13). This APC shell had an added feature, a pre-cap (2) to prevent damage to the cap upon hitting water.)

One innovation of the first world war carried into the second was plunging fire. Here, a battleship captain sought not for the shell to slam horizontally into the thick vertical armor belt or turret faces, but rather plunge diagonally through the weather deck and down into the ship, exploding the target’s main gun magazine. The Imperial Japanese Navy took this a step further and trained captains to aim slightly short, so that shells would plunge momentarily through the water then impact beneath the waterline below the belt; combining the best aspects of plunging fire, direct fire, and a torpedo hit.

USS Missouri was originally “designed impervious to herself”, or in other words, armored to be survivable against the same guns onboard. Specifically the goal was protection against 16″ shells fired between 8¾ NM – 15 NM. Less than 8 NM, it was considered that a 16″ shell would impact at high velocity and penetrate regardless, while above 15NM the shell would have to be at a plunging angle.


(diagram via Robert Sumrall)

The Iowa class had internal belt armor. Carrying the belt internally is harder for a shipyard to perfect and much more difficult to repair if damaged, but it allowed for a sleek hull able to use the Panama Canal. The shell plating of the hull was a high-tensile steel intended to rip off the cap on APC shells before they hit the belt. The belt was 38’6″ tall and extended from one deck below the weather deck, to beneath the waterline to counter the Japanese submerged-plunging tactic. The top portion was Class A armor, an expensive steel which is extremely hard on the surface but softer and more pliable to the rear. The lower portion was Class B, slightly less hard but less brittle. The upper portion was 12.1″ thick and the lower 12.1″ tapering down. This 12.1″ belt was sloped 19º which gave it the same ballistic effect as being 17″ thick at 0°.


(USS Missouri under construction during WWII. To the right can be seen the thick lower belt, inside the thinner shell plating and then the shipyard supports.)

Against plunging fire the horizontal “bomb deck” was 1½” hardened steel. As its name implies, one function was to directly defeat small aircraft bombs. But a more important role was to set the delayed fuze of plunging shells, while ripping off their cap and causing them to yaw and hit the armor deck below at a bad angle.

The “armor deck” was the strongest horizontal part of USS Missouri, in fact, the Iowa class was effectively “upside down” in that it bore more structural load than the keel. It was 4¾” Class B armor over 1½” steel. This was the main protection against plunging hits. Beneath a girder was the “splinter deck” of ¾” steel. It was a “last line of defense” and also intended to bear the weight of debris from the heavier armor above.


(Taken during WWII, this shows an Iowa class turret under construction. Shown is the ¾” sheet steel to which the turret side 9½” Class A armor will be attached. The turret face, not yet started, will be steel 2½” thick overlaid with plates of 17″ Class B armor. This photo also shows the core of the armored conning tower.) (US Navy photo)

The conning tower was protected by a 17½” thick Class B cylinder that connected it to the citadel. The photo below was taken during the 1980s reactivation and shows it’s strength.


The Iowa class was “all-or-nothing” meaning armor was concentrated in a central “citadel” that ran from ahead of the foremost 16″ turret to just behind the rear 16″ turret. It was basically a box, formed by the belts on the sides, strong fore and aft internal bulkheads, and the horizontal armor described above. Everything important – magazines, boilers, engines, and after the 1980s, the CIC – was inside this citadel. Still within the citadel, underneath the three main turrets were barbettes. These were cylinders of 17¼” Class A.

Other areas were nearly unprotected. For example the bow ahead of frame 10 was almost completely defenseless; as there was nothing important in that area and that section of ship had little buoyancy above its own weight.

Despite the all-or-nothing classification, the designers set out to make the best battleship possible and did not strictly limit themselves. Other areas, including the main director towers and an area over the propeller shafts, had some armor.

A lot of factors affect armor performance, and the art of making it was just being truly perfected as the battleship era ended. Therefore it is exceedingly hard to gauge performance vs a specific weapon, especially if that weapon is an entirely different type, like a missile.


(A plate from the turret face armor of IJN Shinano, which was instead converted into an aircraft carrier and never received it. Tested vs a 16″ gun in the USA after WWII, the US Navy discovered that things like trace elements in the alloy and how it was quenched during manufacture, affected its final performance. These tests were for metallurgical study and not a “battle simulation” as sometimes reported.)

kinetic energy

The raw kinetic energy, or Ek = (½m)(v²) of a “Seersucker” impact can be calculated easily. At a horizontal impact point 10′ above sea level, the missile would be traveling 603 kts (1,018fps). The mass at launch is 6,227 lbs.


(“Seersucker” weight distribution at launch.)

However it would have obviously traveled some distance; for purposes of study assume 20 NM. At this, 208 lbs of propellant and 471 lbs of oxidizer (11% of the missile’s weight) would have been consumed already. All this considered, the impact would have raw kinetic energy of 121.4 MJ, or 89,540,045 foot-lbs onto the target.


(This omits two critical items: projectile density and impact angle, but shows the impact speed (Vt) and kinetic energy (Ek) of various projectiles along with USS Missouri’s own.)

Unlike an impacting heavy-caliber shell of solid steel however, almost none of the kinetic energy from a “Seersucker” comes from weight. Assuming a 20 NM flight beforehand, of the remaining 89% launch weight, 22% would be in liquid form (remaining oxidizer and propellant) and less the warhead, the rest either aluminum or plastic with no penetrative ability. So unlike an impacting WWII shell, the actual kinetic energy has to be calculated from the warhead’s explosion.


(One of the most famous photos of WWII, this shows the final moment of a kamikaze as it crashes into USS Missouri on 11 April 1945. Similar to a “Seersucker”, the A6M “Zero” was a largely hollow aluminum object, but unlike the missile it lacked a warhead. It barely dented the battleship. On paper it had only slightly less kinetic energy than a 8″ heavy cruiser shell but obviously the effect was far less. The pilot, believed to be PO3 Setuso Ishino, was buried with honors by the battleship’s crew.)

The total potential energy of the explosive in a “Seersucker”s warhead is a massive 2,411 MJ (1.778 billion foot-pounds or 12,349,694psi). Once again however, the easiest factor to calculate is also the least relevant. In an imaginary 3D spherical explosion near an imaginary 1D vertical sheet, about 30% of the energy (732 MJ) hits the sheet at full effect, 50% (1,206 MJ) is wasted, and the remaining 473 MJ impacts the sheet at roughly the cosine of approach angle – for example, imagining a half-sphere, the “head-on” 30% impacts at a factor of 1.0, while a “ray” at 25° at factor 0.906, 50° at factor 0.643, at 80° at factor 0.174, and so on. But “Seersucker”s do not actually function this way, as described further below.

Other factors make it challenging to model effects of modern anti-ship missiles against WWII armor intended to defeat shells. For an incoming 16” AP shell during WWII, penetration of USS Missouri‘s armor would have started from a hyper-concentrated area ≅0∅ (the smallest imaginable point of the tip of the shell’s penetrating body) with all it’s energy momentarily concentrated there, expanding to no more than a constant 16″ diameter plus friction over the shell’s length. On the other hand with the “Seersucker”, the primary blast’s impact area starts spread out in a broad 30″ diameter already to begin with and expands without inherent limit.

the HEAT factor

Directed-energy ammunition has a hollow inwards-facing cone which concentrates the blast towards one direction. The most familiar application is High-Energy Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds of land combat. The cone is lined with a mild metal. Since explosives release energy on their surface, detonation melts the mild metal and compresses it into a slug-like molten jet in the hollow cone’s core, which is rammed forwards at extreme velocity into the target by the rest of the blast behind it. (Contrary to popular perception, HEAT does not work by heat, and the molten jet penetrates by force, not by ‘melting through’ an object.)


The warhead of the “Seersucker” was derived from the “Silkworm”, itself a Chinese copy of the Soviet “Styx”. Unclassified statements of captured Iraqi missiles describe a “copper jacket” inside the warhead; this being a tell-tale trait of HEAT.

When the Soviets designed the original “Styx”, it is true they designed it with a HEAT-like warhead. However the application here is often mistakenly “scaled up” from the way HEAT is used ashore. In a tank engagement, the objective of HEAT is that the molten jet can penetrate armor resistant to a solid, all the way into the tank’s cramped interior. The small molten jet will kill one or two of the crewmen (effectively knocking the tank out of the battle) or even better, touch ammunition exploding it altogether – even though the jet itself causes minimal damage.

The Soviet navy’s approach was different. Due to the “Styx”s large warhead size to begin with, the logic was that a HEAT feature would neither help nor detract against frigates, minesweepers, corvettes, etc (which would probably be sunk outright by simple blast regardless), but against big oilers, cruisers, LSTs, or aircraft carriers which might survive the main blast, the molten jet would proceed far further into the ship severing electrical lines, maybe lighting off ammo, or at least starting fires which the crew would have to deal with in addition to the main damage.

Against USS Missouri in 1991, it is unfortunately hard to decipher what the added HEAT effect would be, absent advanced modeling computers. The molten jet is not like a laser; but instead erodes as it passes through solid material, to an eventual diameter of 0. After Desert Storm, a US Marine stated that if the HEAT jet was the size of a fist on the skin of a T-72, it would be the diameter of a finger as it entered the tank’s interior.

A rule of thumb with HEAT warheads against tanks is that penetration (depending on the technology of the weapon and quality of the targeted steel) is 2x to 7x the warhead’s diameter. For example, a 105mm tank gun HEAT round’s jet would penetrate between 210mm – 735mm (8¼” – 2’5″) of steel. The diameter of the “Seersucker”s warhead is 30″, so that would equate to a humongous 5′ – 17’6″ (median 11’6”) of steel, far above USS Missouri‘s 1’ belt or 1’7½” turret faces. But it is entirely unclear if this effect actually scales up a true 1-1 as starting diameters and target thicknesses become so large.

Surprisingly the most serious research into how a Cold War-era missile with directed-energy warhead would perform against 1940s battleship armor, came before the Cold War or missile era even started. Very late in WWII, as part of the Razon guided-bomb project, the US Navy constructed a mock-up of what it thought the Yamato class’s vertical protection might be: a stack of plates 11″ Class B, then 4″ Class B, then three ¾” common steel; with 8′ of space between each of the five plates. A 1,000 lbs bomb with a crude HEAT-like warhead penetrated down to the last ¾” plate. The molten jet also cooked off some obsolete anti-personnel bombs simulating battleship ordnance in a magazine.


While extremely impressive this was not exactly ground-breaking. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s Type 99 No.80 bomb, designed before WWII, was a crude non-HEAT 1,760 lbs weapon that none the less demonstrated ability to penetrate 5¾” Class B then three layers of ¼” steel.

These tests were conducted a week before the failed “Ten-Go” operation that saw the destruction of IJN Yamato with ordnance already in use. Now with no serious battleship opposition remaining in the world, the US Navy apparently lost interest. The results were forwarded to the Pentagon a year after WWII ended, forgotten, and were fully declassified in 1962 when few people thought there would ever be battleships in commission again.

Since the “Seersucker” could not dive on target, the possibility of a deck hit or turret roof hit is excluded. Since USS Missouri‘s 16″ turrets were trained towards the shore during the event, the possibility of a turret-side hit is excluded. Against a turret face, another factor often ignored in “textbook” simulations that the flying “Seersucker” (the missile overall, not just its warhead) would likely clip one of the 16″ barrels inbound, meaning that the HEAT jet might not even be oriented properly.

It’s doubtful that the effects of HEAT (or lack thereof) would have made much difference had the “Seersucker” hit in 1991. It is possible (and probably, likely) that molten jet penetration – even through the belt – might have occurred, but it is certainly impossible that a dual penetration (belt then barbette) could happen. Given the size of a battleship, the effect of a small-diameter molten jet going some distance through, say, a boiler room or bunking spaces would cause crew casualties, a fire, and equipment damage, but not anything catastrophic beyond what the primary blast itself caused.

location of hit

Obviously this matters greatly. Against USS Missouri‘s starboard belt, the direct (not tertiary, as described further below) damage would have been, in all likelihood, limited. While a HEAT jet may or may not have made it through as described above, the primary blast alone would not have penetrated the belt.

Against the conning tower, the damage would have been catastrophic, but during the 1980s reactivation, the role of this structure greatly diminished. Whereas in WWII it was a command node, during Desert Storm it’s upper levels were occupied by weather facilities, workshops, and processor rooms; none critical to the ship’s survival.

As mentioned above, the sides, rears, and roofs of the main turrets can be excluded, and their exposed area (the faces) had even thicker armor. A “Seersucker” hit there would have disabled the turret’s ability to fight and caused casualties inside, but would have been unlikely to destroy it outright. These turrets were quite robust. During the 1989 accident aboard USS Missouri‘s sister USS Iowa, 655 lbs of powder ignited inside the B turret’s center gun followed quickly by another 2,000 lbs in the turret’s handling area. The tragedy applied pressures of 4,000psi and  8,241psi to the turret but did not rupture it nor allow the fireball to reach the shell rooms below, or the powder room below them.

One hit zone that might have been problematic would be any of the remaining 5″ twin turrets onboard. These were armored between 1″ – 2½” which would have been insufficient protection against anything in 1991. For certain a 5″ turret struck would be annihilated along with the sailors inside, with the warhead’s outright blast and flying steel debris from the destroyed turret causing secondary damage elsewhere. The 5″ ammo was stored two (or three, with the two elevated mounts) decks below and brought up through flashproof hoists, so it is doubtful the ammunition would explode.

The “Seersucker”s monopulse seeker aimed towards the center of the target’s radar cross section (RCS) without regard to what was in that spot was aboard the targeted vessel. Using the missile’s closest point of approach during the actual 1991 incident (approaching on a starboard-to-port line aligned slightly diagonally aft), USS Missouri‘s RCS to the Iraqi weapon would have probably been highest in an area from the aft 16″ turret through the starboard side of the director tower and the starboard aft set of Tomahawk launchers to the front of the aft funnel.

On an optimistic note, the opposite can happen with RCS and radar-guided ordnance. The upper conning tower area, with the Mk38 director and lattice structure under the big AN/SPS-49 antenna, had a surprisingly high degree of radar reflectivity. A missile hitting there would cause heavy damage and destroy most of the battleship’s electronics, but it would not endanger the ship to the point of loss.

Given the seeker’s lack of sophistication, all this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.


(USS Missouri’s aft 16″ turret, behind it the 5″ gun director atop the helicopter ops station, and behind that the armored base of the 16″ director tower with a port side aft Tomahawk ABL and port aft Harpoons to the left.)

secondary damage & “mission kill”

Direct damage is not the only factor, as any hit anywhere by a “Seersucker” would generate a large amount of flying debris and shrapnel. It should be remembered that while sinking a ship is preferable, damaging it to the extent that it gets knocked out of a war (a “mission kill”) is also a worthy outcome.


(A Type 97 which was ejected as debris from the wing of a crashing kamikaze and impaled into a Mk4 40mm AA gun aboard USS Missouri during WWII.)

When the United States reactivated the Iowa class, it was realized that the number of modern “soft systems” had increased dramatically since WWII. These included new radar antennas, missile launchers, below-decks processors vulnerable to shock and damage from firefighting water, and so on. To the maximum extent possible, the US Navy abated these. A good example was one of the most flammable things aboard USS Missouri, the helicopter fuel.

During WWII, the aft end of the battleship held the two seaplane catapults, the seaplane crane, and two tubs for Mk4 quad 40mm AA guns. On the first deck below was the motor to turn the crane and a deck below it, the winch & cable reel for the crane. A deck below this and atop a bilge was the AVGAS Void (compartment #7-204-2E), a space where seaplane fuel was stored.


(The area described above during WWII. This also offers a glimpse of the Measure 32/Des. 22D camouflage. On the weather deck, a reduced-size outline was painted cockeyed to port, to throw off the aim of Japanese bombardiers. One 16″ barrel on each turret was painted black in hopes that the battleship would be classified as a triple-double instead of a triple-triple design.)

When the battleships were reactivated during the 1980s (the catapults already long gone), the crane was removed and its motor room was used to house the Nixie torpedo decoys (also the reason for the two new cuts on the transom) while the former winch room was used for storage. The JP-5 helicopter fuel was carried in two steel cylinders in the former AVGAS Void. The starboard empty gun tub housed an electrical panel and switchboard to start helicopter engines. Meanwhile the port tub housed the JP-5 fueling hose reel. This could be jettisoned overboard in an emergency; the reason for the cut-out in the gun tub.


(A good shot of the same area after the 1980s, with the cut-out in the gun tub. The white rectangle on the edge of the helipad is a cargo hatch, and behind the two men sitting down is a smaller hatch to bring up small arms ammo to helicopters. The cutouts under the ship’s name are for the Nixies.)

Despite all these efforts, a “Seersucker” hit in 1991 would have still caused significant secondary damage through shock, shrapnel, and possibly fire.

One more thing (often overlooked) needs to be mentioned; and that is the danger posed by the “Seersucker”s IRFNA. During Desert Storm, a US Air Force plane bombed an Iraqi SA-2 “Guideline” (which used the same oxidizer in it’s upper stage) missile battery before it could fire, and the pilot observed “a brown stain” loft up and then settle back down onto the area. Doubtlessly, this was IRFNA kicked up by “Guideline” warheads cooking off. The health effects on the Iraqi soldiers below are unrecorded but it is hard to imagine them being good. In a nautical setting, during the INS Eilat sinking in 1967, two “Styx” missiles hit the destroyer and a third as the crew was abandoning ship. However a fourth “Styx” clipped part of the sinking wreck still above the waterline, causing IRFNA chemical injuries to Israeli sailors in the water. If the “Seersucker” had hit USS Missouri in 1991, doubtlessly part of the ship would have been contaminated with IRFNA residue.


All things considered, the lone “Seersucker” shot at USS Missouri would have neither sunk it outright nor caused its subsequent loss, but in all likelihood the damage would have been severe enough to result in it being pulled out of area. Looking at the bigger picture, by the date of the attack the war was so far along that barring some unimaginable blunder, there was no possible way the USA could be defeated. Hence, any damage whatsoever would have likely resulted in the battleship getting yanked off station. A bigger problem would have been the casualty count. Certainly there would have been some and given the size of an Iowa class’s crew, even a small percentage would have been disproportionally large to the total casualties in the whole conflict.

Congress had already decided to phase out battleships before Desert Storm started. If the damage was significant (and, given the size of a “Seersucker” warhead, it would have been) it is entirely possible that it would have never been repaired, even enough to just mothball the ship, and USS Missouri would have been scrapped.

continued obscurity of the event

Now 28 years later, it is surprising that the world’s first missile-vs-missile intercept in combat receives so little attention, especially as the target was one of the most legendary American warships.

The mistaken mashing together of the timeline is sometimes cited as an attempt to sweep the event under the rug, but this is untrue. Aboard a warship in combat, days are measured less by a calendar and more by naps between General Quarters (calls to battlestations) and equipment repairs. It is understandable that some recollections of the event confuse exact times.

Part of the US Navy’s brevity in 1991 might have to do with the Phalanx CIWS system. During the 1980s, it was relentlessly pilloried in Congress and the media on the grounds that the thing simply didn’t work. This perception wasn’t helped any in 1987, when a then-neutral US Navy frigate, USS Stark (FFG-31) was hit by two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi jet in the Persian Gulf.


Because the Phalanx system lacks IFF, the frigate’s captain had it shut down at the time as the Persian Gulf’s airspace was so crowded. (Ironically one of the things he feared was the Phalanx accidentally shooting down an Iraqi warplane.) As such, it did not “fail” but the American media went with that narrative anyways. Iraq claimed the attack was a mistake, and reportedly the pilot was executed upon landing. In 2004, evidence surfaced that he was not. The truth remains uncertain.

What is certain is that four years later, the US Navy did not want another circus with Phalanx. The strange sequence with USS Jarrett‘s CIWS locking onto USS Missouri‘s chaff did not exactly paint the system in a great light. Perhaps the US Navy in 1991 figured that if nobody was particularly curious about an engagement which ended successfully, then it was best to say little about it.

Somewhat related, during the early 1990s the AN/SLQ-32(V)3 was one of the most highly classified things in the whole US Navy. There was probably no point in showcasing an engagement involving it, when zero information about the system would follow.

This wasn’t the only incident of Desert Storm which remains unexplained in 2019.

In February 1991 (the date is disputed) a Saudi missile corvette named Faisal made an urgent radio call that it was “rocketed by the helicopters (sic)”. Faisal already had a dim reputation in the US Navy, as on 24 January 1991 the ship had fired a RGM-84 Harpoon at an Iraqi warship which apparently existed only in the captain’s imagination. In any case, at NavCent HQ ashore, an urgent analysis was made. There were no Coalition helo ops anywhere near, and E-2 Hawkeye and E-3 Sentry AWACS planes found no aircraft of any type in the area. The distress call was chalked up to fog of war but when Faisal limped back to port, the ship had indeed taken heavy damage. Some years after Desert Storm, a reconstruction concluded that a US Air Force F-4G Wild Weasel had attempted to fire a AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile. The weapon indicated live but the rocket motor failed to start. The pilot followed procedure and jettisoned it off his plane.  As it tumbled to earth, the rocket apparently kicked in, sending it eastwards towards the Persian Gulf where it locked onto Faisal‘s search radar. This would be a remarkable chain of events. Even more oddly, years later the Saudi Defense Ministry “scrubbed” any mention of Faisal ever having been damaged.

On 24 February 1991, something impacted the water at high speed far abeam of USS Jarrett and exploded. There was no Iraqi ordnance in known range, no Iraqi aircraft in the skies, and no Coalition aircraft or ship had an unaccounted-for missile firing. This incident’s cause remains unknown today.


Operation “Desert Storm” ended four days after the failed attack on USS Missouri.

After the cease-fire 60 anti-ship missiles were destroyed by American EOD teams. These were a mixture of ship-fired “Styx”s and ashore-launched “Seersucker”s, the exact breakdown being unrecorded.


(Captured Iraqi anti-ship missiles lined up for demolition.)

However many “Seersucker”s there were, they were in addition to the two fired at USS Missouri and the half-dozen captured at the girls school, plus however many (and there were a lot) destroyed on their launchers or wasted as beach decoys. So clearly Iraq possessed a substantially larger number in 1991 than the USA’s 1990 intelligence thought.

Under the U.N.-brokered cease-fire, Iraq was allowed to keep “Seersucker”s as they were categorized as a non-ballistic, sub-strategic missile. It is thought that Saddam Hussein still had 15 – 20 after the war’s end in 1991, plus another 4 recovered through a daring January 1993 burglary of a U.N. warehouse in Kuwait.

On 21 March 2003, a MIM-104 Patriot SAM shot down a “Seersucker” fired at an American military installation in Kuwait. On 23 March 2003, one was fired aimlessly from the al-Faw site in Iraq towards the general direction of Kuwait City, hitting a shopping mall. These were the final Iraqi uses of the weapon.

In 2004, American occupation troops in Iraq found two “Seersucker”s. They had been tagged by U.N. inspectors after Desert Storm but then lost in storage. They were the last two extant examples in Iraq and were destroyed.

USS Missouri decommissioned 30 March 1992, being the last battleship in service worldwide. The vessel is today a museum ship in Hawaii. HMS Gloucester decommissioned 30 June 2011 and was scrapped in 2015. USS Jarrett decommissioned 26 May 2011 and was scrapped in 2015.


(In 2019 debris of the 1991 war remains in Kuwait, including this “Seersucker” tail section.)





25 thoughts on “missile attack on battleship USS Missouri

  1. Interesting. We visited the Mighty Mo at Pearl Harbor this past January. While much mention is made of the WWII attack, I don’t remember any mention of this missile attack.


  2. I was aboard 2 Sumners and a Fletcher destroyer in the late 1960s. The Styx missile was in a lot of talk. I was aware of the ability to make our ship appear bigger or smaller by ECM. Not too comforting after the INS Eliat attack. We traveled with a carrier and could have been the designated target. The 5″ 38 was a great WWII weapon, but still had trouble bringing down Kamikazes. It was still the most common 5″ gun in the 1960s. For jets, our plan was to predict a course of the aircraft and fill a space along the path with gunfire. I don’t think the guns could turn fast enough to follow a close jet. Hitting a Styx would be near impossible. The shells are VT, explode when close to the target. Maybe if it wasn’t a surprise, all the guns were manned and the Styx was off the broadside where every gun could fire. A gun with a good crew could fire every 2-4 seconds.
    I was on DD-754 during a major shipyard overhaul. At that time the navy had a facility that rebuilt the guns and mount to like new and were replaced whole including the hoist and fusesetter that hung below. It takes 4 to 6 hours to completely load or unload ammo from a destroyer. About 2000 rounds.

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  3. I was aboard the USS Missouri during both incidents. I am SM1(sw) Levi. I saw the missile pass down the starboard side. we took cover on the port side when the Missile turned back around on us. The Sea Dart looked like bottle rockets taking off. The Missile exploded and I felt the shock wave. The second incident they passed the word to brace for shock. We were running from the STBD Signal bridge to the Port Signal Bridge when the rounds hit from the USS Jarrett hit us. two hit the mast and one hit went through the light locker and out the other side. There were 6 of us Signalmen in that wind tunnel when it hit. One round hit the port side stateroom of the HT department head. two Sailors were in the passageway when the round hit an armored ammunition locker and blew back out. It did not go through. a piece of shrapnel that blew back cut or pierced one of the sailors ear’s. Our Signal Bridge was responsible for reloading the chaff launchers. Nobody contacted anybody I know of for a depleted plutonium study. I could stick my thumb through the holes it made in the 1/4 in steel light locker. Oh they were neck level high and about a foot and a half from killing all six of us. SM1 (sw) James T. Levi.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was there, on the USS Jarrett. I was on the fan tail with Petty Officer First Class Robert Thorn manning a .50 cal machine gun. That whole incident happened right in front of us. The Missouri was a waterfall of sparks.

      AT2 Ty E. Shrake

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Just a question (from me, the author) for anybody reading this; was this featured in the media somewhere today? wwiiafterwwii usually averages between 350 – 800 visitors per day, but this article has been visited by over 16,000 people in the past 24 hours. Just curious.


  5. Greatly enjoyed this article. Sorry, but can’t recall just HOW I ended up here other than that it was a link on my cell phone. It might have been on Flipboard as I subscribe to that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. BZ to the author for taking the time to research this and get it (more or less) correct. Big frustration to see these events conflated, confused , and underreported in official and unofficial accounts alike. Thank you

    Thanks SM1 Levi for your comments and leadership.

    FWIW: Article was posted and well received on Missouri vets.

    Thanks, Again.

    QM2 Gary Moorefield (on the Missouri bridge 2/25; in aft steering for the other)—-2/25 biggest fireball I’ve ever seen or felt,,,,reported altitude is way high based on first-hand accounts I’ve read, and what I saw for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nice article. One thing about the potential armor penetration: The Iowas had a internal armor belt, as indicated here. The outer hull plating was 1.5″ of STS armor, then a void with bulkheads, equipment, etc, and THEN the inclined armor belt. The outer hull STS was designed to decap incoming projectiles, and yaw them so if they didn’t outright arm and explode in the void, they wouldn’t hit “head on”, they’d hit it sideways or some angle besides a direct path.
    This was put to the test at Guadalcanal, when the USS South Dakota (basically the same armor scheme as the Iowas) was hit by a 14″ round at close range. There is some debate, but modern analysis indicates that it was yawed and hit the armor (barbette, I believe) sideways, with minimal damage.
    This would have been the case with the missles as well, I think. That outer STS belt doesn’t get mentioned much, but it was an integral part of the armor SCHEME, but only the actual armor plating itself gets talked about, it seems.


  8. So… It took three Styx missiles to sink an 1700 ton unarmored destroyer and you are proposing that one similar type would put a heavily armored 45,000 ton battleship out of service? Just asking… I’m not a squid, but I know HEAT rounds. I was in the same war leading an M1A1 tank team with 1AD.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, “mission kill” is different than blasting it out of the water. The first Styx hit on INS Eilat was sufficient to render it DIW, the second nearly split it in half. The third was basically overkill as it was sinking and the fourth clipped a mast still above the waterline. With the battleship, certainly in a worst case scenario even, the ship would be in no danger of sinking. But if the radar and satcom systems were taken out, it would have been pulled off station.


  9. I doubt a single Styx missile would end a battleship from continuing operations if it was desperately needed. Loss of radar doesn’t stop the guns. It would depend on where the missile hit. I don’t think it could penetrate to a magazine. It’s not an anti tank round. The biggest damage would be a fire from the remaining fuel.
    Mission kill depends on how vital the mission is and what abilities the ship looses. Today with the politically correct admirals we have, any serious damage would probably end the mission. But in WWII, battleships were designed with carrying on the battle even with damage. Counter flooding was a major part of damage control training for battleship sailors. At Pearl Harbor, the difference between the Oklahoma rolling over and the West Virginia settling on an even keel was a damage control officer ordering counter flooding.
    Enterprise CV-6 was damaged in battles around Guadalcanal, patched up but with reduced abilities and remained on station several months until relieved by new ships coming from the East Coast. For a few months the Big E was the only carrier between the Japanese and the West Coast. That would be a good story for someone to write.


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