Tanker War III


The Joshan was a Kaman Class (Combattante IIa) Missile/Gun Boat in service with the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy. Built in France in the 1970’s and delivered for service before the Iranian revolution, the Joshan served out of Bandar Abbas for several years and saw active service in the Iran-Iraq War.

The U.S. ships were firing the SM-l anti-aircraft missiles, which could be used in a surface-to-surface mode, in preference to their Harpoon anti-ship missiles because of other boat contacts in the vicinity of the targeted Joshan. Harpoon missiles, once launched would have used their own radars to automatically lock on and hit a target. The Harpoons might have been distracted away from the Joshan by the nearby presence of dhows, and perhaps hit some of them instead. In contrast, the SM-l anti-aircraft missiles were directed all the way to their target by the fire control radars on the launching ships, making sure that they would hit only the targeted ship. The high speed of the missile, which quickly knocked out the Joshan, was also appreciated. Iranian F4 fighters were orbiting around 35 miles away to the north, so the ships had had the Standards already mounted on their launcher rails as a precaution.

There was some speculation that the Iranian missile’s seeker had not activated because it was fired at such close range to the American ship. However, the Wainwright’s AN/SLQ-32 (V13) electronic countermeasures system had identified the Harpoon by its radar signal, indicating that the seeker was active at launch. The seeker, which intelligence indicated had received no maintenance since 1979, failed about a mile from the Wainwright. The missile appears to have then followed a ballistic trajectory close alongside the cruiser. The combination of chaff and electronic countermeasures may have distracted the Iranian missile while the seeker was active. A seaman reloading chaff launchers topside on the Wainwright said he saw the missile fly past the ship and into a chaff cloud, which may have been the last thing the seeker saw before it failed. In contrast, the Joshan does not appear to have made any effort to deflect the U.S. missiles by firing chaff or taking other defensive actions. “We got chaff from Britain four years ago, but they are not on board ships now,” said a former Iranian naval officer. “The crews don’t know how to use them tactically. They don’t train with them.”

The Joshan was dead in the water and not believed to be combat capable. The two U.S. helicopters were now observing the Iranian missile boat and providing real time battle damage assessment. They reported no damage to the ship’s forward gun or to its hull, but that the superstructure had suffered extensive damage from the bridge to the aft end of the ship and was burning. The U.S. missiles had apparently homed in on and detonated near the highest part of the ship, its superstructure. A life raft was in the water, but no one was in it or in the water. No activity could be seen topside on the stricken ship. By this time, the Joshan had drifted into the midst of numerous dhows and would have been hard to engage because of the risk of hitting the smaller boats. Only after the missile exchange did Captain Chandler have the opportunity to catch his breath and to tell Admiral Less what had occurred.

The JTFME ordered the U.S. ships to break off the engagement. The JTFME still apparently wanted to sink the targeted Sabalan in preference to the smaller Joshan. Range from the U.S. ships to the Joshan was about 14 nautical miles at that point. The Surface Action Group broke off the engagement and opened the distance between themselves and the damaged Iranian ship as they commenced searching for the boats that had earlier fired on the Bagley’s Seasprite helicopter.

Three Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom jet fighters in the air had launched earlier from Bandar Abbas. Flying in formation, the Iranian jets had initially been picked up by the AWACS aircraft. The jets were orbiting some 30 to 35 miles north of the area in which Surface Action Group “Charlie” had engaged the Joshan. From 30 miles away, the supersonic F-4’s could sweep down upon the U.S. warships in virtually no time. Captain Chandler decided to drive them away. He called up McTigue on the Simpson, which was the closest ship to the Iranians, and asked him if he wanted to take an anti-aircraft missile shot. McTigue advised Chandler that the Iranian fighters were outside the engagement envelope of his roughly 25-mile range SM-1 missiles. The Wainwright carried longer-range SM-2ER missiles, which could easily reach the Iranian jets. The Wainwright warned the LAMPS helicopter “Magus 42” to clear out of the way. The helicopter dove for the deck as the Wainwright prepared to engage the Iranian jets.

At 12:50 P.M., the Wainwright fired two SM-2ER anti-aircraft missiles at one of the fighters. The first missile detonated near the Iranian fighter. A debris cloud was evident on air search and missile fire control radars. The F-4 went from 500 knots airspeed to 200 knots and rapidly lost altitude. The stricken Iranian jet initiated an emergency IFF squawk as it ducked low over Kish Island. With something like ten feet of its right wing missing, the fighter limped back to Bandar Abbas suffering from, in the words of a Navy report, “a mild dose of continuous rod” (a reference to the type of warhead on the anti-aircraft missile). By the time the second missile arrived, however, the stricken Iranian fighter had dived below its engageability envelope and it missed. The other two F-4’s lit their afterburners and went supersonic as they fled back over land. Ironically, the Iranian F-4 pilot, a Major, had been trained in the U.S. and had employed the missile avoidance tactics that had been taught to him.

After the anti-air engagement, the Surface Action Group ceased hunting for the small boats that had fired on the helicopter, and was ordered by the JTFME to head back to the Joshan and finish her off. Captain Chandler replied “Wilco” to Admiral Less. He intended to do a high-speed run-in at 25 knots and sink the missile boat with guns. This was a logical plan, as long as the Joshan was dead in the water and not combat capable. However, Wainwright reported that it was detecting electronic emissions from the vicinity of the Joshan. Captain McTigue radioed the observation that, if the missile boat could jam, “then it could get a round out of its gun.” Taking no chances with the Iranian ship Captain Chandler radioed, “I intend to take down his fire control system and finish [him] off with guns.”

Captain Chandler ordered McTigue to fire another Standard missile at Joshan. McTigue thought the target was pretty much reduced to a hulk and was skeptical about it being the source of the electronic emissions. In any case, at 1:52 P.M., the Simpson fired the fourth SM-1 missile of the day. Unlike the other Standards that had been fired, this one actually hit the Joshan. The exploding warhead and the tremendous wallop of kinetic energy delivered by the impact of the Mach 2.5 missile ripped off the remaining superstructure on the Iranian ship, which was now about 13 nautical miles away. Radar video showed debris flying off the ship opposite the side of the missile impact. Based on information provided to him by observers on Simpson’s bridge, McTigue called Captain Chandler and told him that the Joshan was:

On fire. Has fires burning onboard. All fires appear to be topside. There does not appear to be any damage to his hull integrity. Does not appear to be any danger of sinking. Superstructure from bridge area aft has taken most of the damage. We can see his Oto Melara 76mm gun on the foc’sle. At least at long distance, it does not appear to have been hit.

Six minutes later, the Bagley was cleared to fire a Harpoon anti-ship missile, which it did. The version of the Harpoon being fired by the Bagley had a selectable flight profile as it neared its target. It could be programmed to pop up and dive down onto it. It could pop up in a shallower maneuver and dive onto the target, or it could fly in at a sea-skimming height. The pop up maneuvers made the missile more vulnerable to close-in defenses. However, the Joshan was hardly capable of defending itself at this point, so the Bagley selected a pop-up terminal maneuver for its Harpoon.

Unfortunately, the Bagley’s fire control system had not been modified to accommodate the latest version of the Harpoon, so the Bagley was trying to exercise a terminal maneuver option it really didn’t have. The default terminal flight maneuver for the missile was a sea-skimming run-in and that is what the Bagley got.

The Harpoon flew straight in toward its target and then right over it. Apparently the missile skimmed over the settling, burning hulk and landed in the water down range. If the missile had done a pop-up maneuver, it probably would have dived into the wrecked ship. The Bagley’s SH-2F Seasprite had followed the flight of the Harpoon in and now provided an updated battle damage assessment. Everything aft of the Joshan’s gun mount was burned to the water line. Life rafts were in the water, but no one could be seen in them. No one could be seen topside.

The three U.S. warships now closed to a range of 10,000 yards and turned broadside to the wrecked Iranian ship to deliver the coup de grace with guns. Captain Chandler radioed, “Simpson, Bagley, this is Wainwright. Immediate execute. Turn starboard one three zero at speed one two… stand by… execute. You have batteries released.” At 2:21 P.M., the Simpson opened fire. During the gunfire attack on the Sirri platform, Commander McTigue had carefully controlled his 76mm gun, specifying how many rounds it could fire in each salvo. When the gunfire attack on the Joshan was commenced, McTigue was up on the bridge and had not specified how many rounds were to be fired. As soon as they got “batteries released,” the gun control crew ripped out 49 rounds before he could stop them. McTigue had actually wanted about 20 rounds fired. The Simpson and Bagley helicopters saw the rounds impacting on the Joshan and saw secondary explosions. The Bagley and Wainwright joined in, also scoring direct hits. The last 5-inch salvo fired by the Wainwright hit forward on the Joshan and caused a violent explosion. A shell had probably detonated the magazine for the Iranian ship’s own 76mm gun.

The U.S. ships broke off the engagement after ten minutes of gunfire. The Bagley and Wainwright had fired 49 5-inch rounds, the Simpson a total of 74 76mm rounds. The Joshan sank quickly, leaving an oil slick but not much debris. The ship’s egg-shaped plastic radome remained bobbing on the surface, a temporary marker over its watery grave. The helicopters reported two injured Iranians wearing orange life jackets floating in the water. The bodies of three dead crewmen were also observed floating in the water. The Iranian ship would normally have carried a crew of around 31. It seems likely that the dhows sailing nearby during the battle were able to pick up the survivors; especially if any had abandoned ship during the one-hour respite the U.S. surface action group had given them.

It is difficult to see what the Joshan’s captain had been up to. He could have launched his Harpoon missile from a much longer range if he had simply intended to attack the American ships. He had received numerous clear warnings, which were acknowledged. Nevertheless, he continued to defiantly close on the American ships. Perhaps, up until the fourth and final warning, he was not convinced that he would be fired on and thought he could just bluff his way through. Prior to that day, the U.S. Navy had not engaged regular Iranian Navy warships. The Iran Ajr had a regular navy crew but was under commercial registry. The other various actions which had taken place were against IRGC speedboats. Certainly there had been several tense encounters between the U.S. and Iranian warships, but they had not actually come to blows until the Joshan engagement.

As to the final U.S. warning, legitimate questions were later raised about the wisdom of alerting an armed warship to your intention to sink him, particularly when within range of his weapons. The U.S. procedure, which had apparently come down from Washington, had allowed the Joshan to get off the first shot, was probably not the best idea, regardless of how it had turned out. The need for some preliminary warning was clear; however, giving a ship’s captain the choice of abandoning his ship or going down fighting is really no choice at all. What captain could possibly present himself to his superiors after abandoning his warship to be sunk or seized without a fight? Duty aside, rational calculation would be for him to take even the slimmest chances of fighting as opposed to the certainty of a court-martial leading to imprisonment or execution. Without much difficulty, one can guess at the fate of such an officer under the revolutionary regime of Iran, which was already extremely distrustful of its regular military officers.


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