In the 1980s, the Middle East saw the largest American naval engagement since World War II. It can teach us lessons about how a war today with Iran could be won.
In 1980, war broke out in the Middle East. The year prior, a revolution in Iran toppled the pro-Western Shah and replaced him with a theocratic revolutionary government. The event led to even greater conflicts. Although relations between the Shah in Tehran and Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein had never been warm, both countries went to war in the mid-70s in a border dispute, and the Revolution destroyed what little good feelings existed between the two.
Iran's government tried to position itself as the leader of the Islamic world and endorsed revolutionary tactics to overthrow the governments of neighboring states. Meanwhile, Iraq saw the Revolution as an opportunity to acquire Iran's oil-rich southern provinces. This would give them the means and clout to proclaim themselves to be a regional leader, eclipsing not both Iran and Egypt.
The Tanker War Begins
However, the Iran-Iraq war was not that simple, clean, or quick as Saddam had hoped. Despite a substantial infusion of equipment from the Soviet Union, the Iraqi army was unable to decisively beat the Iranian army. That’s because, in the 1970s, Iran was the recipient of advanced American and British arms. Once the fighting on the ground bogged down, both sides resorted to increasingly desperate and barbaric tactics in the hopes of breaking the stalemate. For the next four years, the war seesawed across the border, with first one side and then the other launching offensives aimed at reclaiming lost territory and punishing the other side.
To break the bloody stalemate, the Iraqis planned a bold raid against the Kharg Island in 1984. Kharg was the central processing center for the majority of Iranian produced oil, and it connected ashore wells with tankers at sea. The Iraqi attack caught the Iranian's by surprise and destroyed virtually the entire Kharg facility, depriving Iran of virtually all of its oil profits. In response, the Iranians began to attack Iraqi ships in the congested Persian Gulf and threatened to close it to all commercial traffic, Iraqi and neutral alike. This was the beginning of the so-called “Tanker War.”
Operation Ernest Will Raises American Flags
These threats naturally provoked an international reaction, and for the next three years, the United States led an international force of almost thirty warships in what became the largest convoy operation since World War II. By 1987, the Iranians were exhausted and had lost most of the Western supplied equipment. Their air force had been all but destroyed, and they were desperate for a way to bring Iraq to the negotiating table. Their solution was to threaten to expand the war at sea by attacking neutral shipping and laying mines across the Gulf.
At nearly the same time, on May 17, 1987, an Iraqi fighter attacked the USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors and injuring over 20 more. While later evidence would prove that the Iraqis had attacked the Stark, the combination of Iran's hostile rhetoric and the fluid situation in the Gulf convinced the Reagan administration and many of the Gulf States that the Iranians were behind the attack, and would next move to close the Gulf to traffic.
In response to the Stark incident, both the United States and the other Gulf States initiated Operation Ernest Will. In the first stage of Earnest Will, virtually every tanker ship in the region registered themselves as an American ship and began to fly the stars and stripes. Virtually overnight, United States-flagged ships began to carry the majority of the Gulf's oil.
In the second stage, these ships officially obtained aid from the US Navy, which engaged in convoy operations by shepherding ships into and out of the Gulf. By extending its Aegis to many of the Gulf states, the US put Iran under considerable pressure to respond, which it did by mining ship lanes across the Gulf.
Throughout 1987 and 1988, the US conducted convoy operations as well as anti-mining operations, attacking hostile Iranian ships and oil platforms. In September 1987, US helicopters patrolling the Gulf shadowed the Iranian support ship Iran Ajr. The Iran Ajr was observed laying mines in the area and when a SEAL team boarded the ship, they found more mines slated for deployment. These would become critical to what followed.
Operation Praying Mantis Strikes
Almost a year later, the USS Samuel B. Roberts had just finished escorting Kuwaiti tankers out of the Gulf when it struck a mine. The damage to the Frigate was catastrophic. Ten soldiers were injured, while fires and flooding damaged many compartments. Worst of all, the ship’s keel (its “back”) was completely broken. This kind of damage would have destroyed most ships, and the Roberts herself was nearly lost. But thanks to the bravery and skill of her crew, the ship stayed afloat long enough to make the port at Dubai where she was picked up by the Dutch heavy load transport ship the MV Mighty Servant 2. It was ultimately repaired and returned to service. However, a $1,500 Soviet-made mine inflicted almost $90 million worth of damage to the Roberts, and nearly took the lives of her crew as well.
For American forces operating in the Gulf, the most important question was “what’s next?”
Divers recovered pieces of the mine which damaged the Roberts, as well as several other undetonated mines in the area. The serial numbers confirmed that the mine had come from the same batch as those captured aboard the Iran Ajr – undeniable proof that Iran was behind the attack.
The Roberts incident, as well as the loss of several other civilian ships in the area, was too much. Both the Navy and the Reagan administration, in the middle of an election year, were determined to send a message to Iran. This operation, dubbed Praying Mantis, aimed to demonstrate the Navy's willingness to retaliate for aggressive Iranian actions in the region. Eight American surface ships and the Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise were formed into three groups and tasked with engaging two suspected Iranian command posts on defunct oil platforms.
Four days after the Roberts was damaged, American surface groups made their move against the platforms. After being engaged by Iranian anti-air guns, the American ships attacked the platforms and compelled them to surrender. In response, the Iranians deployed several armed motor boats, which aircraft from the Enterprise destroyed.
Unwilling to back down, the Iranians then deployed its largest ships, including two frigates and a French-built patrol ship. These ships launched American built Harpoon missiles at the surface groups, and American Standard missiles at nearby aircraft. In addition, several of Iran's precious few F-4 Phantom aircraft supported these attacks.
However, the US Navy had spent most of the 1970s preparing to fend off swarms of Soviet-built anti-ship missiles. Chaff and decoys distracted most of the incoming weapons. Those few that made it through this screen were intercepted by the group's close in weapons, including one missile that was shot by the USS Gary's 76mm deck gun. In retaliation, the surface groups launched missiles of their own and raked the Iranian ships with gunfire. This fire sank one of the frigates and the patrol ship. Aircraft dropped a laser-guided bomb down the funnel of the other frigate, which sat low on the stern and had to be towed back to port.
All told, the American forces destroyed two of Iran's three largest surface ships and damaged the third. They further shot down two of the attacking F-4s, destroyed a half dozen motorboats, and dynamited two oil platforms. Over the course of an afternoon over a dozen modern warships lobbed dozens of deadly anti-ship missiles at each other in what would become the largest surface engagement the Navy fought since World War II.
These operations successfully defanged the Iranian navy and effectively ended the Tanker War. This blow also cemented Tehran's desire to negotiate a ceasefire with Iraq before the war expanded against them. However, this victory did not mean the end of fighting in the Gulf, and several more engagements, and accidents such as the downing of Iran Air 655, would occur before the formal end of the war. However, after Praying Mantis, the Navy established control over the Persian Gulf which it would maintain throughout the rest of the war, and through the subsequent war with Saddam in 1991.