Asymmetric warfare in the Persian Gulf.

Operation Praying Mantis

18 November 1988

Commander Arthur ‘Bud’ Langston pushed the Intruder’s throttles forward to military power. The A-6 squatted down onto the catapult shoe. Langston saluted and braced himself. The launch officer gave the signal. In the space of two seconds, the Intruder hurtled from zero to 150 mph. It was the morning of April 18, 1988 – and Operation Praying Mantis was underway.

F-14s and E-2 preparing to launch

Carrier Air Wing II prepares to launch

Cdr Langston was Strike Leader of Attack Squadron 95 (VA-95) ‘Black Panthers’, part of Carrier Air Wing II aboard the nuclear-power aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Loaded with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Skipper rocket-assisted and 500 lb Mk-82 laser-guided bombs (LGBs), VA-95’s mission was to sink the Iranian Saam-class frigate Sabalan.

A-6E Intruder

Flight of the Intruder

In March 1987, under Operation Earnest Will, U.S. Navy (USN) warships began escorting Kuwaiti tankers reflagged as U.S. vessels to protect them from Iranian attacks. In response, and convinced, in Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s words, that with the failure of Operation Eagle Claw the United States was a ‘paper tiger’, Iran began sowing the region’s seas with unmarked M-08 naval mines. In July, one of these struck the U.S. reflagged super-tanker SS Bridgeton off Farsi Island, ripping a 32 x 16 ft (10 x 5 m) hole in its side.

A-6E Intruder

Workhorse of the fleet - the A-6E Intruder

On 14 April 1988, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) hit a second Iranian mine. Two-hundred and fifty pounds of TNT blew a 15-ft (4.5-m) hole in the frigate’s hull, flooded the engine room and other compartments, injured a number of crew members and started a series of fires. Only heroic efforts on the part of the crew prevented the ship from sinking outright.

At this, America lost patience with Iran. Two days later, the Enterprise Battle Group was ordered to prepare for a retaliatory ‘War at Sea Strike.’ Codenamed Operation Praying Mantis, the War at Sea Strike began at sunrise on 18th April. Its main components were three Surface Action Groups (SAGs) codenamed Bravo, Charlie and Delta, together with multiple combat aircraft from the USS Enterprise. The initial targets were the Iranian Sirri and Sassan oil and gas installations, and the IRIN frigate Sabalan. Each consisting of several drilling and extraction platforms, both oil installations were armed and known to have been used for initiating and coordinating attacks on unarmed tankers.

On board the Enterprise, Carrier Air Wing II began preparing a Combat Air Patrol/Surface Attack Combat Air Patrol (CAP/SUCAP) package of four F-14A Tomcats, two A-6Es, two EA-6s, and an E-2 for immediate action. A second attack group of two F-14As, two A-6 Intruders, six A-7 Corsairs, an EA-6 and an E-2 was also armed up and brought to operational readiness.

The air attack group’s initial objective was to help locate and sink the Iranian Saam-class frigate Sabalan, which, along with its sister ship Sahand had been targeting the bridge and crew quarters of tankers with RPG-7 rockets and 12.7 mm machine-gun fire to kill as many crew members as possible. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command Navy (IRGCN) La Combattante II/Kaman-class fast-attack craft had also been shooting up unarmed tankers – and had laid many of the mines that were now causing so much damage.

IRGCN La Combattante II/Kaman-class fast attack craft firing Harpoon missile

SAG Bravo’s task was to attack the Sassan complex; quash resistance; and deploy a team to destroy it with explosive charges. SAG Charlie’s task was to execute a similar attack on the Sirri platforms. SAG Delta’s objective was to help hunt down and sink the IRIN frigate Sabalan.

At 0730 local time, the guided missile cruiser USS Wainwright (CG-28) together with the Frigates USS Simpson (FFG-56) and USS Bagley (FF-1069) of Surface Action Group ‘Charlie’ warned the Sirri’s occupants to abandon the complex, as all three U.S. ships were about to shell it with their main guns. While some of the Iranians began to comply, others manned the twin-barrelled ZSU-23 mm AAA guns that had been installed on the platforms and opened fire. The warships replied with their main armament. A volley of five-inch shells slammed into the platforms, starting fires that burned out of control and either destroyed or severely damaged them.

OHP frigate engaging oil platforms with naval gunfire

Up in flames - one strike and out for the Sirri oil platform

At the same time, Surface Action Group ‘Bravo’, which consisted of the guided missile destroyers USS Merrill (DD-976), USS Lynde McCormick (DDG-8) and the amphibious landing ship USS Trenton (LPD-14) approached the Sassan complex at high speed. This time, the platform crews began to abandon their positions as advised. Once they were clear, the Merill and the Lynde McCormick opened fire with their five-inch guns. A Marine AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship also attacked the target with missiles and gunfire. At 0930, U.S. Marines from Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) 2-88 fast-roped down onto the smoking and semi-shattered installation, gathered intelligence, and then demolished what was left of it with explosives.

At first, the Iranian response to these attacks was muted. By coincidence, Iraq had launched an offensive across the Fao (Faw) Peninsula that same morning. But later, a small fleet of armed Iranian Boghammar armed speedboats shot out into the Southern Gulf area from their Abu Masa base, and began to ambush passing merchant ships with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. These attacks damaged the unarmed U.S.-flagged supply ship Willie Tide, the Panamanian-flagged Scan Bay, and the British oil tanker York Marine.

Iranian Boghammar fast attack boat firing Exocet missile

Small, fast and deadly - a Boghammar punching above its size

Originally purchased from Sweden’s Boghammar Marin AB shipbuilders, the Iranian speedboats had been modified to carry a range of weapons including 106 mm recoilless rifles; 1 x 107 mm 12-barrelled multiple rocket launchers and a variety of surface-to-surface missiles including Harpoons and Exocets. With a top speed of 46 knots (85 km/h), the Boghammars were fast, agile, small and in theory harder to hit. Their aim was to overwhelm the defenses of conventional enemy warships by attacking them simultaneously in large numbers.

But on this day, the Boghammars’ speed, agility and size did not save them. A pair of VA-95’s SUCAP Intruders spotted and attacked them with Rockeye cluster bombs, sinking one and damaging several of the others.

U.S. Navy A-6 Intruders on the way home

U.S. Navy A-6 Intruders - mission accomplished

The battle now began to escalate. The larger Iranian La Combattante II/Kaman-class fast attack craft Joshan wheeled into an attack run on Surface Action Group Charlie. The USS Wainwright’s Captain repeatedly warned the Joshan to "stop your engines and abandon ship, I intend to sink you". Instead, the Joshan kept on coming. When it was within 13 nautical miles, U.S. Command authorized SAG Charlie to engage it weapons free. The Wainwright was lucky the enemy ship did not get its retaliation in first: the Joshan fired a Harpoon missile at the Wainwright. Diverted by the ship’s defensive chaff system, it missed.

USS Simpson firing Standard SM-1 missile

USS Simpson firing Standard SM-1 missile

The USS Simpson now fired four SM-1 Standard missiles at the Joshan, while the Wainwright fired a further one. The missiles all hit but did not immediately sink the enemy ship. The USS Bagley then fired a Harpoon missile at the stricken vessel. This also missed – but by now the crippled Joshan was an easy target for SAG Charlie’s main guns, which sank her.

The Wainwright then fired two Extended Range Standard SM-2 missiles at a pair of Iranian F-4 Phantom fighters that had been loitering about 30 miles (50 km) away. The first missile detonated near one of the F-4’s, blew off part of its wing and peppered the fuselage with shrapnel. The Phantoms made a run for it.

The Iranians were getting a pasting - but to the surprise of American commanders, they showed no signs of giving up. Commander Langston, who now launched from the Enterprise, tells us what happened next: ‘Shortly after take-off, the Battle Group air intelligence officer (E-2) alerted us that a Saam-class frigate in Bandar Abbas was getting underway…My B/N (bombardier/navigator) confirmed radar contact and forward-looking infrared imagery (FLIR) showed what was possibly the frigate Sabalan leaving port at Bandar Abbas making about 30 knots…

‘Positive identification was mandatory. I put the A-6 into a steep dive five miles astern of the target ship, levelling out below 100 feet at 500 knots. When we were about a mile astern, the ship opened up with AAA and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles...We went by the port side at deck level. The ship had Sabalan’s number on its hull. Bright AAA muzzle flashes and tracers passed behind us as the Iranian gunners failed to lead their shots.

‘We egressed out to twenty miles, called the E-2 and told them to pass to the Enterprise: ‘launch the Strike Group.’ I then told the Sabalan that they had five minutes to abandon ship, because I was going to sink them. We didn’t see anyone abandoning ship after ten or so minutes, so we made a Harpoon attack. The missile failed to launch, so we had to go out again, reset all the ordnance switches and make another run. This time, the missile locked on and launched correctly. We watched the Harpoon skim low on the water and impact the frigate behind the bridge. Fire and billowing black smoke rose from the explosion and the ship went dead in the water.

USN A-7E Corsair dropping bombs

Lots of stick - but no carrot

‘We made another attack run with the Skipper rocket-assisted bombs and a Mk-82. By this time, I could hear the Walleye-equipped A-7s calling in hot, followed by the A-6 calling out the Harpoon attack. One Walleye hit the Sabalan’s front gun turret in a massive explosion, knocking it partially off the deck. Subsequent hits put the ship further ablaze as the remaining four A-7s rolled in with their strings of 500-lb bombs. The ship remained on fire and listed heavily but did not sink as the attack ended and the strike group egressed.’

Undeterred by – or unaware of – its sister ship’s fate, the frigate Sahand now also left Bandar Abass at speed. As it drew near the ship to identify it, a second VA-95 SUCAP A-6 came under missile and gun fire. The ship’s pennant number confirmed it as the Sahand. The Intruder climbed away, looped round and attacked with a 500 lb LGB. It struck the ship’s funnel and exploded. Flames and smoke billowed out and the Sahand stopped dead in the water. The Intruder’s aircrew asked permission to sink the frigate, but Washington called it off with the comment: ‘We’ve shed enough blood for one day.’ Even so, a Harpoon missile fired from SAG Delta’s USS Joseph Strauss had by now also hit the Sahand, starting an ammunition fire which saw it roll over and sink later in the day.

Iranian frigate Sahand on fire after being attacked.

Iranian frigate Sahand burning from stem to stern. The ship was hit by three Harpoon missiles and multiple Rockeye cluster bombs.

An example of asymmetric warfare, in which a nation employing relatively inexpensive weapons like mines and small fast-attack craft took on the high-tech might of the world’s greatest military power, Operation Praying Mantis was the largest U.S. naval surface engagement since World War II. By the end of the operation, U.S. air and surface units had either sunk or severely damaged half of Iran's naval forces. They had also ensured that, for the time being at least, safe passage for merchant shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and in the Gulf was assured.

Thank you for your passion and support,

Yours sincerely,

Eagle Dynamics Team