This Week in History: Iran, US battle on the seas

US engages in largest surface naval battle since WWII after months of heightened tensions from Iran-Iraq war.

US seamen aboard the USS Samuel B. Roberts 370 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
US seamen aboard the USS Samuel B. Roberts 370 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On April 18, 1988, the United States engaged in its largest surface naval battle since World War II - with Iran. Four days earlier, US Navy guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian naval mine in the Persian Gulf, blasting a 50-foot hole in its hull.
The attack came after months of increased tensions along the sidelines of the Iran-Iraq War, during which both countries extended the battlefield to civilian commercial sea vessels supporting their respective oil economies. In order to protect Kuwaiti and other Gulf states’ shipping lanes and assets, in 1987 the United States allowed a number of Kuwaiti ships to be reflagged as American, a move designed to permit them US naval protections. In July 1987, one of the American-flagged Kuwaiti ships struck an Iranian mine. Four months later, Iran struck yet another of the reflagged ships, the Sea Isle City, this time with two silkworm missiles. In retaliation, the US destroyed an Iranian oil platform used by its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to launch seaborne attacks.
The tension continued to build into early 1988, and by April, US patrols and operations to thwart IRGC mining and attack operations were in full swing.
The attack on the USS Roberts, however, was the first time the Iranians had targeted an American ship as opposed to the American-flagged Kuwaiti ships it had been attacking until that point. Washington decided on a response sending a clear message to Tehran that the US would not allow the situation in the Persian Gulf to continue.
On the morning of April 18, US Marines and Navy Seals launched attacks on two Iranian oil platforms used by the Revolutionary Guards. The platforms were heavily damaged and made unusable. Shortly thereafter, the IRGC sent a missile boat to defend the platforms. The Joshan managed to fire off its solitary harpoon missile before being sunk by the American cruiser USS Wainwright.
In the following hours, Iran dispatched fighter jets, most of which turned back once the US Navy ships locked radar on them; one was shot and badly damaged, although the pilot managed to land on a nearby island. A swarm of small Iranian attack boats was also sent to attack the US ships, but they were damaged and sunk by American warplanes that prevented the small boats from ever nearing the US Navy. Another Iranian warship, the Sahand, fired missiles at US warplanes overhead, which swiftly sunk it.
But the US military was not yet satisfied with its retaliatory strikes; it had wanted to send a stronger message in retaliation for the mine attack on the USS Roberts. The Iranian Sabalan, a warship that had attacked numerous merchant vessels in the past, was singled out ahead of time and three US warships set out to find it in the Gulf. As the events were recalled in a Washington Institute paper some two days later, after the Sabalan finally steamed out of port, “The Iranian vessel fired three missiles at the nearby US Navy A-6 attack aircraft. The US planes veered to avoid the missiles, and retaliated by dropping a single five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb, which went straight down the Sabalan’s smokestack and exploded in the ship’s engineering spaces.”
After that final attack, no more Iranian ships came on the offensive, and the US Navy called it a day. By the end of the day, the US had sunk one Iranian frigate, a gunboat, three speedboats, damaged another frigate and severely damaged the two oil platforms. Over 55 Iranian sailors were killed. On the American side two US Marines were killed, but their deaths were not combat related.
Despite Operation Praying Mantis coming to a close less than 24 hours after beginning, one tragic event that followed it would forever mar the naval success. Following the operation, US guided missile cruiser the USS Vincennes was deployed to the Gulf to protect the USS Roberts until it could be towed into a friendly port for repairs.
On July 3 of that year, the Vincennes detected an Iranian fighter jet flying toward it. The captain ordered it shot down. The identification, however, was mistaken. The USS Vincennes instead shot down Iran Air Flight 665, which was carrying 290 civilians on board, killing them all.
With Tehran recently threatening to block the Hormuz Straits amid increasing chatter of a possible war against Iran, military planners are certainly looking at past confrontations with the Islamic Republic. Considering that Iran is expected to launch asymmetrical attacks against soft targets - like shipping - in the region if attacked, Operation Praying Mantis offers valuable lessons for both sides in any future conflict.