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H-018-1: No Higher Honor—The Road to Operation Praying Mantis, 18 April 1988

H-Gram 018, Attachment 1
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
April 2018 

 

(Note: Sources on U.S. and Iranian operations in the Arabian/Persian Gulf during the late 1980s often conflict. I’ve attempted to reconstruct using open sources; however, I welcome input from participants to make this more accurate. This note is also a bit long, but I did not write anything on the 30th anniversary of many of these incidents.)

The Tanker War

In 1979, the pro–United States Shah of Iran was overthrown in a violent revolution that resulted in the Islamic Republic of Iran, led by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolution resulted in the termination of an increasingly close relationship between the U.S. Navy and the Iranian Navy. Iran under the Shah was viewed by the United States as an important ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. As a result, the United States had supplied the Iranians with sophisticated weaponry, such as Harpoon anti-ship missiles, F-14 Tomcat fighters with Phoenix long-range air-to-air missiles, and P-3 Orion ASW aircraft, which fell into the hands of the virulently anti-United States Khomeini regime. Four destroyers had been under construction for the Shah’s navy, but the contract was terminated and the ships were completed for the U.S. Navy. Known as the Kidd-class, these destroyers were modified Spruance-class destroyers upgraded with a significantly enhanced anti-air missile and radar suite. These ships were often referred to as the “Ayatollah” or the “Khomeini” class, with a bit of envy, since the Shah bought weapons upgrades that the U.S. Navy couldn’t afford in the austere late 1970s. Named after admirals killed in battle during World War II (Kidd, Callaghan, Scott, and Chandler), their heavy-duty air-conditioning suites made them ideal for operations in the Arabian Gulf, where they deployed frequently in the 1980s, sometimes in action against Iran. These fine ships are now in the service of the Taiwan navy.

In September 1980, Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq, launched a blatant large-scale military offensive into Iran, hoping to take advantage of the chaos and turmoil that was rampant in Iran as a result of the Revolution. Initially meeting success, like the German offensive into the Soviet Union in World War II, the offensive quickly bogged down, and the war devolved into an eight-year stalemate, with hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides. The Iranians gradually gained back ground using massed human-wave attacks, suffering immense casualties against Iraq’s better-equipped army. Even that wasn’t enough to hold back the Iranians, and Iraq eventually resorted to widespread use of chemical weapons to blunt the Iranian counter-attacks, which still eventually drove into eastern Iraq.

As the bloody stalemate on the land continued, the war spread to the Arabian Gulf, initially confined to the far northern end. The superior (U.S.-trained) Iranian Navy and Air Force quickly bottled up the Iraqi navy in port and prevented Iraq from shipping oil in her own tankers through the Arabian Gulf. In retaliation, Iraq began attacking Iranian shipping in the northern Gulf, using a variety of aircraft in hit-and-run type attacks. Initially the Iranians did not respond in kind, keeping their attacks focused on Iraqi naval targets. As the war dragged on, the Iranian regime, viewed as a pariah by most of the world, found it increasingly difficult to maintain the readiness of its sophisticated U.S. air and naval weaponry due to embargoes and sanctions. Meanwhile, Iraq got help from the Russians and Western nations such as France, who viewed Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship as a lesser of two evils compared to Khomeini’s revolutionary regime.

In March 1984, using their new French-supplied Super Étendard fighters, armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, the Iraqi air force attacked Iran’s Kharg Island oil export transshipment facility in the northern Arabian Gulf, vital infrastructure for Iran’s economy. Iran retaliated by attacking neutral ships in the Arabian Gulf, many of which were carrying supplies and some war materials to Kuwait, where they were then transshipped over land into Iraq. Iraq then began attacking tankers going to and from Kharg Island, and the “Tanker War” was on. As attacks on shipping increased in 1985, the Iraqis accounted for about three fifths of all ships struck. By the end of 1987, Iraq had conducted 283 attacks on shipping, while Iran attacked 168 times. Combined, the attacks had killed 116 merchant sailors, with 37 missing and 167 wounded, from a wide variety of nationalities. Initially there was great concern that the attacks would cut off the vital flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf, but all they really did was drive up insurance rates. The world’s need for oil was so great, that over 100 dead merchant seamen was apparently an acceptable price.

Almost all Iraqi anti-ship attacks were conducted with Super Étendard and then, later, Mirage F-1EQ fighters, armed with an ample supply of French Exocet missiles. Most of the Iraqi targets were very large Iranian tankers, which absorbed hits by Exocets fairly well. Actual sinkings were rare; the first tanker sunk was Neptune, which was empty en route Kharg Island in March 1985. Iran responded to the attacks by establishing an offshore transshipment point, using large tankers as storage off Larak Island near the Strait of Hormuz, where oil would be transferred to foreign tankers. Meanwhile, Iranian tankers would make the dangerous shuttle run between Larak Island and Kharg Island, with the result that foreign-flag tankers were largely spared from Iraqi attacks. The same was not true for shipping destined for Kuwait (and then Iraq).

Cut off from outside supply, Iran resorted to a wide variety of platforms and weapons to conduct ship attacks. These included machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks from small speed boats (“Boghammers” and similar types) that did little damage; wire-guided anti-tank missiles launched from helicopters operating off Iranian oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf, which also did minimal damage against large ships; and Maverick missiles fired by F-4 Phantom fighters, which were more effective, but an increasingly scarce weapon. Most of these attacks caused relatively minor damage, but did hit ships from multiple nations, particularly Kuwait. Later in the tanker war, Iran began using Sea Killer missiles fired from their four Saam-class frigates, which caused greater damage and casualties. In particular, the frigate Sabalan, under the command of Abdollah Manavi (also known as “Captain Nasty”) became notorious for deliberately firing into the crews’ quarters of neutral ships; in several instances, this resulted in high numbers of deaths. However, it was the resort to mine warfare by the Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) that would change the nature of the tanker war and draw the U.S. Navy into direct conflict with Iran at sea.

Following the Iranian revolution, Iran had two separate navies. The “regular” Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) consisted of reasonably well-trained and professional sailors, many United States–trained holdovers from the Shah’s navy. The leaders of the IRIN were also viewed with great suspicion by the Iranian revolutionary regime, and their loyalty was questioned and their resources were deliberately constrained, which reduced readiness and capability. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) were religious zealots, who were better at loyalty to the regime than seamanship. Nevertheless, the IRGCN was significantly more aggressive and unpredictable than the IRIN and more willing to tangle with the U.S. Navy with their fast speedboats. It was the IRGCN, little constrained by the notions of “rules of war,” that determined that sea mines would be more effective than the IRIN’s mostly pinprick attacks on shipping.

Throughout 1986 and into 1987, Iraqi anti-ship strikes began to range further down the Gulf, as the Iraqis improved their air-to-air “buddy” refueling techniques. By 1987, a typical Iraqi anti-ship profile would be for several Mirage F-1EQ fighters to stage from their home base at Al Jarrah to Shaiba airfield in southern Iraq, near the Kuwait border. Two would launch for a night strike, one Exocet-armed and the other a buddy tanker. The F-1s would hug the edge of Kuwait and Saudi airspace (frequently in it) to avoid Iranian radar coverage (although intercepts by Iranian fighters were very rare). The tanker would turn back and the strike F-1 would proceed toward a pre-planned turn point, turn on its Cyrano IV radar in search mode, make the turn to the east toward Iran, descend to low altitude and increase speed, lock on and fire the Exocet at any big radar blip in the declared exclusion zone along the Iranian coast. Usually the blip was an Iranian shuttle tanker, because all other ships had been warned not to be in that area. In theory, the F-1 pilots were supposed to identify their target before they shot, but few were that fastidious, generally being more concerned about being jumped by Iranian fighters during the run in. As a result, most of the Iraqi Exocet shots were fired at an unidentified, but presumed Iranian, radar blip. (The peak of operational capability by the Iraqi air force would occur in 1987, when several Mirage F-1s, with relays of F-1 buddy tankers, flew 600 miles, the length of the Arabian Gulf. They flew at night, under Iranian radar, and hit the Iranian oil storage tankers at Larak Island with new French-supplied laser-guided bombs. The Iraqi air force during Desert Storm in 1991 had atrophied into a pale shadow of its 1987 peak.)

The number of air attacks by both sides doubled in 1986 over those of 1985. In November 1986, Kuwait issued a call for foreign assistance to protect Kuwaiti-flag tankers, which were increasingly being hit by Iranian attacks. The Soviet Union responded first, chartering tankers under Soviet flag and providing escort through the Gulf to Kuwait. Concerned that the Soviet Union was getting an advantage, the United States wanted to respond to the Kuwait request, but U.S. law precluded U.S. warships from escorting (and defending) foreign flag ships. In March 1987, after much lawyering, the solution was to “re-flag” 11 Kuwaiti tankers (and LNG carriers) with the U.S. flag and registry. The ships would be renamed, provided a U.S. master, inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard (which waived all kinds of safety requirements), and fly the American flag, which then made it legal for U.S. Navy ships to defend them. Doing so, however, would put the U.S. Navy in direct conflict with Iran, although a key assumption was that the Iranians “wouldn’t dare” to attack a U.S.-flag ship. The assumption was valid with the IRIN, but not with the IRGCN.

USS Stark Attack

On 17 March 1987, as the U.S. Navy focused on the possibility of outright conflict with Iran, the frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) was hit by two Exocet missiles launched by an Iraqi Mirage F-1EQ5, killing 37 U.S. Sailors and heavily damaging the ship.

Despite intelligence warnings that the Iraqi ship strikes were occurring further south, and despite a dangerous encounter between USS Coontz (DDG-40) and an Iraqi Mirage F-1 in the same vicinity, and despite operating only a few miles from the declared exclusion zone, Stark continued in Condition IV (peacetime steaming) as much of the crew focused on an engineering inspection the next day. U.S. Air Force E-3A AWACs aircraft detected and reported the Iraqi aircraft when it was still 200 miles from Stark, heading south on a standard attack profile, except the pilot seemed to be having difficulty maintaining steady altitude. This contact was reported to Stark’s skipper, Captain Glenn Brindel, who asked to be informed if the aircraft developed into a threat, but was not on the bridge for the rest of the approach. At a range of 70 miles, Stark’s own radar picked up the Iraqi aircraft, as well as its Cyrano IV radar in search mode. As the aircraft drew closer, with a projected CPA of only a few miles, the SPS-49 radar operator recommended to the TAO (tactical action officer) to issue the standard radio warning to the aircraft that it was approaching a U.S. Navy vessel and risked being fired upon. The TAO opted to wait.

 At 2105, the Iraqi jet reached its turn point (further south than almost all previous attacks,) turned toward Stark and began an accelerated descent. At 2107, the Iraqi jet fired an Exocet at a range of 22 miles from Stark while the frigate detected the Cyrano IV in target mode. At 2108, Stark issued a radio warning via military distress frequency about the same time the aircraft launched a second Exocet at a range of 15.5 miles. The aircraft turned away without acknowledging the radio call.

Stark’s radar did not detect the missile launches. The first warning of an inbound missile came from the forward lookout. On board Stark, the captain was called when the plane changed course, but could not be immediately located. The CIWS (close-in weapon system) operator was in the head, unbeknownst to the combat information center watch officer (CICWO) or TAO, although it wouldn’t have made much difference since the CIWS was masked and not ready. The SRBOC (chaff) launchers were not ready. The weapons control console was not manned, since the CICWO was covering both positions on the watch bill, and the executive officer was actually sitting in the WCO’s chair, waiting to talk to the TAO about some administrative manner. The ship did not maneuver to bring the 76-mm gun to bear, and no weapons were fired or other defensive measures taken.

The first missile penetrated Stark’s port side below the bridge. The missile warhead did not detonate, but the missile’s fuel ignited (and because of the relative short range of the shot, there was an ample supply) and flaming fuel sprayed throughout the crews’ quarters and other interior spaces. The second missile impacted a few feet from the first and did detonate. The two missiles killed 29 of Stark’s crew outright and another eight would die of their wounds and burns, with another 21 wounded. Unlike the slow reaction by the CIC to the developing threat, Stark’s damage-control effort was nothing short of heroic. Despite the heavy casualties and loss of key personnel (due partly to damage to the chief’s quarters,) Stark’s crew battled the flames, some of which were burning at great intensity (3,500 degrees) and with great ingenuity corrected a severe list that developed due to the firefighting water. Once the fires were out, Stark was able to return to Bahrain under her own power.

Iraq apologized for the attack, claiming it was an accident, although they also incorrectly initially claimed that the Stark was operating in the declared exclusion zone. It was an accident, but it was an accident waiting to happen due to continual Iraqi negligence in positively identifying targets before shooting. The Iraqis never identified or produced the pilot during subsequent investigations, but reports that he was executed are probably not true. Saddam Hussein viewed the U.S. acceptance of Iraq’s apology with no further action to be a sign of U.S. weakness. That the Iraqi aircraft fired two missiles caused extensive debate and speculation at senior U.S. Navy levels (I was a CNO intelligence briefer at the time) because the Mirage F-1EQ5 variant sold to the Iraqis by the French was only equipped to carry one. This led to the theory that the attack was actually carried out by a Dassault Falcon 50, a multi-engine, multi-seat aircraft used as a trainer by the Iraqis, which had Cyrano IV radar and could carry more than one Exocet. Nevertheless, the Iraqis were also capable of considerable ingenuity and had modified an F-1 to carry two missiles and this was the first such attempt (the pilot’s unfamiliarity with carrying two missile was presumably why he was all over the sky on the way down). The Falcon 50 had sufficient range to reach as far as the Red Sea, and so was viewed as a potential long-range threat during Desert Storm, contributing (along with lack of adequate tanking) to holding back significant numbers of U.S. Navy fighters for fleet air defense during Desert Storm.

On the American side, the Navy board of inquiry recommended that both Captain Brindel and the TAO, Lieutenant Basil Moncrief, be brought up for court-martial. Neither was tried, but both received a letter of reprimand via non-judicial punishment (NJP) from Admiral Frank Kelso, commander in chief, Atlantic Fleet, and left the Navy early. Stark’s executive officer was also relieved for cause and received a letter of admonition. Had it not been for the commanding and executive officers’ extraordinary actions in saving their ship, the punishment might have been more severe.

 Operation Earnest Will

Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. Navy escort of “re-flagged” Kuwaiti tankers, officially commenced in July 1987. However, on 25 May, U.S. Navy ships did provide escort for a Kuwaiti-flagged cargo ship that was transporting U.S. arms to Bahrain. Operation Earnest Will would last from 24 July 1987 to 26 September 1988 and was the largest naval convoy operation since World War II. (And, as an aside, on 28 June, Iraqi planes dropped chemical weapons on an Iranian civilian target for the first time, although Iraq had previously used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, delivered by artillery, rockets, and air.) As the ground war continued to stalemate, both sides became increasingly desperate to find a way to break the deadlock. Iraq used chemical weapons, both sides began to fire large numbers of SCUD surface-to-surface missiles at each other’s cities, Iran launched a surprise amphibious assault across the Shatt al-Arab waterway and captured Iraq’s al Faw Peninsula, and the IRGCN decided to resort to mines. The first ship to hit and be damaged by Iranian mine, the day after the Stark attack, was one of three Soviet-flagged tankers chartered by Kuwait.

The first Earnest Will convoy left the United Arab Emirates en route Kuwait on 22 July, consisting of two U.S.-flagged Kuwait ships, including the huge tanker Bridgeton (former Kuwaiti name al-Rekkak), escorted by USS Worden (CG-18), USS Fox (CG-33), USS Kidd (DDG-993), USS Crommelin (FFG-37) and USS Klakring (FFG-42). The Iranians had very good intelligence regarding the convoy’s movement, and the night before the convoy was to transit west of Farsi Island (a small Iranian island in the middle of the north-central Gulf,) several IRGCN small boats laid a string of mines across the deep-water channel (to which Bridgeton was essentially constrained). U.S. intelligence detected unusual Iranian activity near Farsi Island (which was actually a planned small-boat surface attack that the Iranians aborted), but did not detect the Iranian minelaying activity in real time. On 24 July, Bridgeton struck an Iranian moored contact mine. The massive ship absorbed the power of the mine, which, despite the size of the hole, did not significantly impact the tanker. The result, however, was one of the more ignominious photos in the annals of U.S. naval history, which showed Bridgeton arriving in Kuwait with her erstwhile U.S. escorts following in her wake, apparently using the big tanker as a “minesweeper” for their own protection. The assumption that the Iranians “wouldn’t dare” was shattered. The incident also revealed that despite all the preparation for the convoy, the United States had virtually no mine-warfare assets in the Arabian Gulf. Further convoys were postponed during the scramble to deploy eight MH-53 Sea Stallion mine-warfare helicopters and eventually eight ocean-going minesweepers (MSOs) and six coastal minesweepers (MSCs).

Iran Ajr Capture: Caught Red-handed

Throughout the summer of 1987, tensions continued to increase between the United States and Iran as Iran laid more minefields in various locations in the Arabian Gulf, which of course the Iranians denied doing. On 10 August, the tanker Texaco Caribbean, under U.S. charter by a U.S. firm, struck a mine off Fujairah (along with a couple other ships, at least one of which sank). This was the first time Iranian mines had been laid outside the Strait of Hormuz. Also that same day, a U.S. F-14 from USS Constellation (CV-64) fired two Sparrow air-to-air missiles at a radar blip that had been assessed as showing hostile intent toward a U.S. P-3, although nothing was hit.

There was also a secret (at the time) adjunct to Operation Ernest Will, called Operation Prime Chance. As part of the operation, U.S. Army special operations attack helicopters were embarked on U.S. Navy frigates. In addition, two barges were acquired, Hercules and later Wimbrown 7, which were used as mobile sea bases, each with a SEAL platoon, two Mark III fast patrol boats, U.S. Army MH-6 and AH-6 “Little Bird/Sea Bat” helicopters, an explosive ordnance disposal detachment, and a U.S. Marine Corps security detachment. The planning for the barges was somewhat controversial, due to perceived vulnerability to attack. Admiral Lee Bagget, commander in chief, Atlantic Fleet, called it a “floating Beirut Barracks,” a reference to the terrorist attack in 1983 that killed over 241 U.S. service members, mostly Marines and 18 U.S. Navy Sailors.

Despite the risk, Operation Prime Chance achieved a stunning success on 21 September 1987. An IRGCN detachment had essentially commandeered an IRIN LST, Iran Ajr. The ship had mixed IRIN and IRGCN crew, who did not like each other. Iran Ajr loaded 18 Sadaf 02 moored contact mines with the intent to mine the main channel leading to Bahrain. Iran Ajr’s unusual communications profile, and stop at the Iranian Rostam oil platform (used by the IRGC for intelligence collection) alerted U.S. naval intelligence in Bahrain. The frigate USS Jarret (FFG-33) was ordered to investigate the suspicious activity, and two U.S. Army attack helo’s from Jarret caught Itan Ajr in the act of laying mines. Cleared to engage, the Army helos fired rockets and numerous machine gun rounds into the LST, seriously damaging the ship, killing several crew members and causing others to jump over the side. When the helos returned 15 minutes later after re-arming, they were astonished to see Iran Ajr still intent on accomplishing her mission. The LST, with her remaining crew, had resumed minelaying, so the helos conducted a second attack. A SEAL team subsequently boarded and took control of the ship, including the ten mines still on board. Three Iranians were killed outright and two others were lost after going over the side. The United states rescued and captured 26 other Iranians (who were returned to Iranian authorities via the UAE, complete with U.S. Navy T-shirts and ball caps). The Iranians tried to claim that Iran Ajr was on a routine resupply mission to Iranian oil platforms, prompting Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger to comment, “That’s the biggest load of groceries I’ve ever seen.” Iran Ajr was towed into international waters in the Iranian-declared exclusion zone, and deliberately scuttled by the United States. The capture of the LST also proved to be an intelligence collection bonanza, as it included copies of Iran’s primary war plan in the event of conflict with the United States.

Not sufficiently chastised (a lesson for any future engagement with Iran), the IRGCN planned to retaliate by attacking targets on the Saudi coast (including potentially the U.S. barges) with a massed attack by about 60 small speedboats (Operation Hajj). Through a good source, U.S. naval intelligence learned of this operation and advance warning was provided to both the United States and the Saudis. However, on the night of the planned attack, 3 October 1987, sea conditions on the Iranian side of the Gulf turned the Iranians’ attempt to form up into a total fiasco and the mission was scrubbed. The Saudi’s reacted with significant naval and air force, but upon finding nothing, accused the United States of crying “wolf.”

Still not giving up, the IRGCN mounted another operation in the night of 8 October, this time with much less intelligence warning. U.S. Army helos from the USS Klakring sighted a group of three Iranian speed boats (one Boghammer and two others) southwest of Farsi Island. One of the Iranian boats fired what was proved to be a U.S.-made Stinger hand-held surface-to-air missile at the helos, which missed. The helos then engaged the Iranian boats, sinking one and heavily damaging two (one of which later sank). The United States rescued six Iranians, but two died from their wounds, and seven Iranians were killed. The United States also found components of Stinger missiles, the first confirmation that the Iranians had acquired this weapon. As a result of this attack, the Iranians once again called off the operation, even though a few IRGCN commandos were already ashore in Saudi Arabia, and the largest IRGCN operation of the war was thwarted.

Operation Nimble Archer

Still undeterred, the IRGC tried to retaliate via a different means. When the Iranians captured the Iraqi al-Faw peninsula, they also captured Iraqi Silkworm (a Chinese-made derivative of the Soviet Styx) coastal defense cruise missiles. (The IRGC had also purchased some of their own Silkworms from China and were busy building launch sites along the eastern side of the Strait of Hormuz.) At maximum range, a Silkworm fired from the al-Faw Peninsula could just reach the Kuwait Sea Isle oil transshipment terminal off the Kuwait coast near the Mina al-Ahmadi refinery. On 15 October, the Iranians fired a captured Iraqi Silkworm from the al-Faw and hit the U.S-owned, Liberian-flag tanker Sungari anchored off Mina al-Ahmadi. On 16 October, the Iranians did it again, hitting the U.S.-flagged (re-flagged Kuwait) tanker Sea Isle City at the off-shore terminal, wounding 18, including permanently blinding the U.S. master.

On 19 October 1987, the United States executed Operation Nimble Archer in retaliation for Iranian Silkworm attacks off Kuwait. At 0800, the USS Thach (FFG-43) radioed a warning giving Iranians on non-operational oil platform in the Rashadat (Rostam before 1979) oil field 20 minutes to abandon the platforms. Then the USS Hoel (DDG-13,) USS Leftwich (DD-984,) and USS John Young (DD-973) opened fire on the platforms with their 5-inch guns. The steel lattice work nature of the platforms made them difficult targets to do much significant damage to, despite a considerable expenditure of ordnance. SEALS also went aboard a platform and set demolition charges after collecting a trove of documents of significant intelligence value. Although Iran had used the platforms, which had helo pads, as a staging point for Iranian attacks on neutral shipping by AB-212 helicopters armed with anti-tank weapons, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2003 that the U.S. attack was “unjustified” on self-defense grounds (although I am not sure who cared by then).

No Higher Honor

Following the Iran Ajr capture and Operation Nimble Archer tensions in the Gulf continued, but the U.S. and Iran refrained from shooting at each other. Nevertheless, the bloody attrition in the land war continued, and the “War of the Cities” ramped up as both Iran and Iraq fired SCUD missiles into civilian population centers. On 18 March 1988, the Iraqis launched a major air attack against Iran’s Kharg Island, succeeding in sinking two Iranian supertankers, but losing two TU-22 Blinder bombers and one Mig-25RB Foxbat high-altitude reconnaissance bomber to Iranian F-14 Tomcats.

At sea in the Gulf, U.S. Navy commanders had been given more liberal rules of engagement (ROE) to interfere in continuing Iranian attacks against neutral ships. Although U.S. Navy ships were still not allowed to defend foreign-flag ships, the new ROE permitted U.S. Navy ships to operate in proximity to neutral ships in order to deter an attack, or to aggressively maneuver and dog Iranian warships to give them something to worry about besides attacking other ships. The result was a number of instances of dangerous maneuvers and near-collisions between U.S. and Iranian warships. In particular, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) essentially harassed the notorious Iranian frigate Sabalan, breaking up several potential attacks. Given Sabalan’s track-record of high-casualty attacks, Samuel B. Roberts’s actions, under the command of Commander Paul X. Rinn, no doubt saved the lives of neutral seamen. In a couple of cases, Roberts and Sabalan mixed it up like two fighter pilots maneuvering to gain positional advantage, with the Roberts gaining the upper hand in each.

Whether the Iranians deliberately targeted Samuel B. Roberts, which had become a significant impediment to them, is unknown. However, Iran actually had a decent intelligence collection and tracking capability, and as Roberts returned from a successful Earnest Will escort (the 25th; no Earnest Will convoy had suffered any damage after the first one), the IRIN cargo ship Charak laid a 12-mine field ahead of Roberts’s track on the night of 13/14 April 1988. Either the Charak or her sister Souru laid another minefield the same night about 60 miles away. Late the next afternoon about 1640, the forward lookout alertly spotted three mines ahead, and the OOD immediately brought the ship to full stop, and as soon as Commander Rinn reached the bridge he could confirm they were mines (and not dead sheep or other floating trash often mistaken for mines). Rinn called the ship to general quarters without actually sounding the GQ alarm, and ordered everyone not absolutely necessary to get above the main deck, an action that no doubt saved many lives. He then tried to back Roberts out of the minefield following his own wake, which proved easier said than done.

While backing down, Roberts struck an Iranian moored contact mine, resulting in a massive explosion that broke the ship’s keel (the only thing actually holding the ship together was the main deck), quickly flooding the ship with over 2,000 tons of water in two main spaces (if a third flooded the ship would be lost) and starting a major fire that proved extremely difficult to put out. The ship lost power for about five minutes with three of the four diesel generators damaged. A Sailor (ENFN Mike Tilley, who had chosen not to get above the main deck), although trapped below decks, was able to “suicide-start” the fourth diesel generator. With some electrical power and pumps restored, the crew was able to fight the fire, while others shored up the third main space below, and still others cabled the superstructure together. It also became apparent that fire-fighting water was flooding the ship, and Roberts was slowly sinking by the stern. As if things weren’t bad enough, and with night approaching, the Sabalan arrived on scene within five miles, and Rinn ordered a live round loaded on the missile launcher. Sabalan subsequently kept her distance. At one point, Rinn had to make a difficult decision and ordered fire-fighting to cease in order not sink his own ship. The chief engineer, Lieutenant Gordan van Hook, then devised an innovative alternate way to get the fire to go out, which actually worked. The last fires were out at 2105. Ten of Roberts’s crew required MEDEVAC, four of them serious burn cases that had to be taken to the States. Roberts would be towed to the UAE and subsequently loaded on the Mighty Servant 2, brought back to the United States and repaired, and served until she was decommissioned in 2015. All thanks to an extraordinary damage control effort by all hands by an extremely well-trained crew.

Operation Praying Mantis

Iran experienced a really bad day on 18 April 1988. Having gained a foothold on Iraq’s al-Faw Peninsula months before, Iranian troops had become bogged down in the muck and mire (much like “Flander’s Fields” in World War I) under a constant rain of Iraqi artillery. When the Iraqi Republican Guard launched a massive counter-offensive on 18 April, aided by chemical weapons, the Iranians on the al-Faw were defeated with surprising ease. It was becoming apparent to the Iranians that they were running short on humans for “human wave” attacks. The same day, the United States executed Operation Praying Mantis, giving Iran additional reason to believe that the United States was now actively intervening on the side of Iraq.

Operation Praying Mantis was the largest of five major U.S. Navy surface actions since World War II. It was the first, and so far only, time the U.S. Navy has exchanged surface-to-surface missile fire with an enemy, and it resulted in the largest warship sunk by the U.S. Navy since World War II. The trigger for the execution of Praying Mantis was the mine strike by USS Samuel B. Roberts on 14 April. The primary tactical objective of the operation was to sink the Iranian frigate Sabalan. The larger objective was to inflict enough pain on Iran to deter them from laying any more minefields in the Arabian Gulf. The commander of the operation was Rear Admiral Anthony Less, Commander Joint Task Force Middle East, embarked on the command ship USS Coronado (AGF-11), supported in the Gulf of Oman by Battle Group Foxtrot, commanded by Rear Admiral Guy Zeller, Commander Cruiser-Destroyer Group Three, embarked on USS Enterprise (CV-65). (The convoluted chain of command in the Arabian Gulf/Arabian Sea will be the subject of a future H-gram.)

Operation Praying Mantis began in similar fashion to Operation Nimble Archer the previous October, only on a larger scale. At 0800, Surface Action Group (SAG) Bravo approached Iran’s Sassan oil platform in the central Arabian Gulf. SAG Bravo consisted of USS Merrill (DD-976,) with Commander Destroyer Squadron Nine and an HSL-35 LAMPS helo detachment embarked, the USS Lynde McCormick (DDG-8,) and USS Trenton (LPD-14,) with a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) embarked along with the LAMPS detachment off the damaged Samuel B. Roberts. At 0800, Merrill issued a warning giving Iranians on the platform 20 minutes to abandon it; some did, some didn’t. After time was up, the U.S. ships opened fire. An Iranian ZU-23 anti-aircraft gun on the platform returned fire until the Iranians requested a cease-fire, and the U.S. complied. More Iranians abandoned the platform and cleared the area on a tug, but some remained on the platform and resumed firing. A Marine AH-1 attack helo off Trenton put a stop to further resistance. Marines then boarded the platform and captured one wounded survivor, some small arms, and more documents of intelligence value before emplacing explosives that were subsequently detonated.

SAG Bravo was then ordered to proceed to the Rakhsh oil platform and destroy it. Two Iranian F-4 Phantoms commenced an attack run on SAG Bravo but broke off as soon as Lynde McCormick locked on to the F-4s with missile fire control radar. During the operations there were several examples of the “fog of war.” A Soviet Sovremenny-class DDG was initially misidentified as an Iranian Saam-class frigate (like the Sabalan) and a UAE patrol boat was initially misidentified as an Iranian Boghammer speedboat, but their identities were cleared up before they were fired on. However, at this point, orders were received to de-escalate the situation, and the attack on Rakhsh was called off.

Meanwhile, SAG Charlie commenced a similar operation at Iran’s Sirri Oil Platform. After the obligatory warning, the USS Wainwright (CG-28) with OTC, Captain Dave Chandler embarked, USS Simpson (FFG-56,) and USS Bagley (FF-1069) opened fire. Although the ships attempted to be careful where they fired since Sirri was still an active oil-production platform, a stray shell hit a compressed-gas tank, and the resulting mass fireball incinerated the Iranian gun crew. Embarked SEALS were initially assigned to board the platform, but that was deemed not necessary.

The Iranians initially reacted to the attacks on the oil platform by sending five IRGCN Boghammer speedboats into the southern Arabian Gulf, using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to attack any non-Iranian targets they could find. The U.S.-flag oil rig supply ship Willie Tide, the Hong Kong-flag, British-owned tanker York Marine, and the Panamanian-flag oil rig Scan Bay were all damaged by these attacks. Later in the day, VA-95 A-6E Intruder aircraft off USS Enterprise engaged four other IRGCN Boghammers (after being fired upon). The fast boats proved difficult to hit, but a Rockeye cluster bomb on the second pass did the trick, sinking one of the Boghammers and causing the others to flee to Iranian waters. A couple other small Iranian speedboats were also sunk during the course of the day.

In response to the U.S. attacks on the oil platforms, the IRIN Kamen-class missile patrol boat (PTG) Joshan, under the command of Captain Abbas Mallek, was ordered to proceed to the scene, although the orders were ambiguous as to what exactly she was supposed to do. Approximately three hours later, Joshan was detected closing on SAG Charlie. Captain Chandler, on board Wainwright, was well aware from intelligence reports that Joshan was carrying the last operational Harpoon anti-ship missile in the Iranian navy inventory. Chandler later said he would have shot Joshan at 35 miles were it not for the de-escalatory order. However, as the Joshan and SAG Charlie continued to close at a combined speed of over 50 knots, Wainwright continued to broadcast warnings to Joshan to turn away or be fired upon. Captain Mallek responded on the radio, “I am doing my duty. I am in international waters and will commit no provocative attack.” However, at 13 miles, following yet more warnings, Joshan locked on to Wainwright with her fire-control radar. Chandler issued a last radio warning, “Stop engines, abandon ship, I intend to sink you.” Joshan responded by launching her Harpoon at Wainwright.

In response to the Harpoon launch, Simpson fired four Standard missiles in surface-to-surface mode at Joshan and Wainwright fired one. (Although the Standard missile’s anti-air warhead is relatively small, the missile gets to the target extremely fast…and when I was in TAO school in 1982, the instructor hammered that point home.) At least four of the missiles hit Joshan’s superstructure with devastating effect, but not enough to sink the ship. Chandler opted to keep Wainwright’s bow pointed at Joshan to minimize radar cross section. The Iranian Harpoon’s seeker either failed to activate or was lured off by chaff, and the missile passed close aboard down Wainwright’s starboard side. Bagley also fired a Harpoon at Joshan, which missed. The U.S. ships then sank the crippled patrol boat with guns. The Joshan suffered 15 sailors killed; among the severely wounded was Captain Mallek with a severed leg. While the surface action was going on, two Iranian F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers were orbiting too close for comfort and Wainwright engaged them with two extended-range Standard missiles. The F-4s took evasive action, but one missile blew a large hole in the wing of one of the aircraft. The pilot managed to bring the badly damaged plane to land at Bandar Abbas, a credit to both the his skill and the toughness of the F-4.

The Iranians did not get the de-escalation order, and at 1230 the Saam-class frigate Sahand (sister ship to Sabalan) departed Bandar Abbas, under the command of Captain Shahrokhfar. Although not as notorious as Captain “Nasty” Manavir, Shahrokhfar had a reputation as an aggressive skipper. Two VA-95 A-6E’s flying SUCAP for USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16) spotted Sahand. The lead A-6 (piloted by future Rear Admiral Bud Langston) made an identification pass and was fired on by a hand-held SAM from Sahand. Langston fired a Harpoon at the vessel, and Joseph Strauss and the other A-6 followed suit; all three Harpoon’s probably hit. The A-6s attacked again with laser-guided Skipper missiles and bombs as other Enterprise aircraft rolled in with yet more ordnance. The damage to Sahand was severe, and she was soon burning stem-to-stern with fires out of control before a massive explosion in one of her magazines sank her, with a loss of at least 45 of her crew.

Joseph Strauss had been operating as part of SAG Delta, covering the approaches to Bandar Abbas and the Strait of Hormuz. SAG D consisted of USS Jack Williams (FFG-24,) with Commander DESRON 22, Captain Donald Dyer, embarked, USS O’Brien (DD-725,) and Joseph Strauss. There were multiple reports that the Iranians fired Silkworm anti-ship missiles at SAG Delta. A subsequent investigation reported that none were fired, although there were witnesses who were sure they saw some large flying objects pass by. The United States did not publically state that Iran fired any Silkworm missiles, possibly because any Silkworm missiles fired at SAG Delta would have come from Iranian territory, which the United States had previously stated would result in a significant escalatory response. Whether or not Iran fired Silkworms at SAG Delta, Joseph Strauss fired multiple Standard missiles at long range at an Iranian C-130 that was acting as if it might be attempting over-the-horizon targeting for the Iranian Silkworm sites ashore. None of the missiles hit, but the C-130 kept its distance, as the commanding officer of Joseph Strauss intended.

There was one definite Iranian Silkworm launch. It was in the northern Persian Gulf, fired from the al-Faw Penisula (before the Iraqis recaptured it) at maximum range and targeted against USS Gary (FFG-51) which was covering the U.S. special operations barges from possible Iranian attack. Gary took effective evasive actions and possibly shot down the missile, although the missile was also likely about out of fuel.

The Iranians were still not sufficiently chastised, and at 1630 Sabalan finally departed Bandar Abbas. Although quickly located, there was only one U.S. aircraft nearby that had ordnance (after the field day on Sahand earlier). An A-6, flown by Lieutenant Commander James Engler (who had earlier sunk a Boghammer), conducted an identification pass and was fired on by an SA-7 hand-held surface-to-air missile from Sabalan. In accordance with the ROE, Engler (and his bombardier-navigator) responded by planting a Mk 82 500LB laser-guided bomb down Sabalan’s stack. (Engler would receive a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions this day). The single hit crippled the ship, leaving her dead in the water and burning, with Captain Nasty immediately on the air pleading for help. Unfortunately, the time it would take for other Enterprise Air Wing 11 aircraft to arrive and attack would seriously stretch the bounds of what could be considered permissible “self-defense” under the ROE. At this point, Secretary of Defense Carlucci approved CJCS Admiral Crowe’s recommendation to cease any further hostile action. Sabalan was towed back into Bandar Abbas and eventually repaired and returned to service. Captain Nasty would eventually achieve the rank of vice admiral.

The only U.S. casualty of the battle was a Marine Corps AH-1T Sea Cobra helicopter gunship that crashed after dark about 15 nautical miles from Abu Musa Island, killing both crew members. Operating from Trenton, the helicopter was sent to investigate possible Iranian activity. The helo had been in near-continuous action all day and crew fatigue may have been a factor in the crash as there was no sign of combat damage when the helicopter was later raised from the bottom.

With that, Operation Praying Mantis was over. The next major action in the undeclared war with Iran would be a tragic accident on 3 July 1988 in which the cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49) shot down a commercial Iranian jet (Iran Air flight 655), killing all 290 civilian passengers on board. This tragedy, ironically, would significantly contribute to ending the bloody Iran-Iraq War.

(Sources for this H-gram include Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist and No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf by Bradley Peniston. Both are truly superb books. The description in No Higher Honor of how skipper Rinn used the legacy of Samuel B. Roberts and the history of ships named in his honor to inspire his crew through intense combat training is my favorite part.)

Published: Tue Apr 17 10:32:11 EDT 2018