Operation Praying Mantis IV

Sahand burns after strikes by U.S. Navy ships and aircraft on 18 April 1988.

All this time, the men of the first group—SAG Bravo—were listening in on the radio net but also keeping a close watch on their own electronic sensors. In the middle of the battle between SAG Charlie and the Joshan, the surface search radar on the Merrill identified a high-speed surface contact with the signature of a large surface combatant. It had a profile similar to the Iranian frigate Sabalan and was approaching at twenty-five knots. Perkins decided to send up a helicopter and “get a visual.”

The morning had been clear and sunny, but by midafternoon the weather had turned hazy over the Gulf as the heat mounted. The Marine helicopter pilot from the Merrill could not positively identify the contact. It was a warship and had the general size and configuration of a destroyer or frigate, but in the thick haze he could not see more than that. Perkins tried raising the contact on the radio, but for whatever reason it did not respond. After that, while Perkins stayed on the bridge, the Merrill’s captain went down to the CIC to take the chair of the tactical action officer. “Now we were getting excited,” the Merrill’s executive officer remembered. “We needed to prep the Harpoon, because if this is what we think it is, we don’t know if he had a Harpoon or not.” Perkins, however, still wanted a positive identification, and he ordered the Marine helicopter to move in closer. At this, Colonel Bill Rakow, the senior Marine officer, expressed his concern that the men in the helicopter might be sacrificed. “We had a kind of discussion,” Sanford recalled. “The captain is down in combat plotting Harpoon solutions. He had the key around his neck, and was getting ready to go.” But the Marine colonel did not want his pilots to be placed in more danger than necessary.

Sanford got on the radio to the helicopter pilot and asked him if he could see a hull number.

“Well,” came the reply, “it’s three numbers, but it’s back a little bit.”

American warships carried their hull numbers on the bow, so this was clearly not an American vessel. The bridge team pulled out a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships and quickly thumbed through it looking at the Iranian order of battle. The Iranians didn’t have any ships with a three-digit hull number either.

Then Sanford recalled that on the way into the Gulf some months back, the Merrill had passed a Soviet warship heading out of the Gulf whose hull number was 767. He told Perkins that this was probably a Soviet vessel. “The ship was in close, the captain in Combat had a Harpoon solution and the key was in the lock,” he recalled later. “It was just a matter of turning the key.” But Perkins held his fire, and eventually a Soviet Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyer steamed past within three thousand yards, apparently oblivious. Perkins pointedly asked him his intentions, and the Soviet captain radioed back, speaking in heavily accented English: “I vant to take peectures for heestory.”

For the ships and men of the third combat group—SAG Delta—it had been a frustrating day. Since dawn they had listened in on the radio traffic while SAG Bravo and SAG Charlie had fulfilled their missions, and they had cheered when they heard that the Joshan had been sunk. But there was disappointment mixed with their celebration, for they had hoped to find and sink the Iranian frigate Sabalan, and instead it was SAG Charlie that had an opportunity to engage an Iranian warship. In fact, SAG Delta had yet to locate the Sabalan, though it was not for lack of trying. All day the three ships of SAG Delta had pursued electronic leads looking for Iran’s premier combat vessel; at the same time a squadron composed of one A-6E Intruder and two F-14 Tomcats from the Enterprise searched the periphery of the Gulf. The pilots thought the Sabalan might be hiding among the merchant shipping that crowded the Strait of Hormuz; other reports indicated it was in port at Bandar Abbas with engine trouble. Indeed, there was little evidence that suggested the Iranians were even paying much attention to the American attacks.

But the Iranians were paying attention. Late in the morning a small squadron of Iranian Boghammer gunboats attacked an oil platform and several merchant vessels near the Mubarek oil fields off Sharjah in the southern Gulf. The attack may have been a coincidence, or the Iranians may have decided to attack an oil platform in an effort to respond “proportionately” to the American attacks on Sassan and Sirri. Whatever their motives, the Boghammers were out in international waters, and two A-6 Intruders from the Enterprise requested permission to hit them. Admiral Less was willing enough, but the ships were near Iranian territorial waters and they might simply dart back across that invisible line. He sought guidance up the chain of command. Could U.S. forces “chase Iranian forces out of international waters and hot pursue them into territorial waters?” His request was flashed by satellite to General Crist in Tampa, and from there to the Pentagon, and finally to the desk of Lieutenant General Colin Powell at the White House. Powell took the request personally to President Reagan, who responded, “Do it!” and the attack order was delivered back down the chain of command to the pilots in the A-6s. The whole circuit took “less than three minutes.” The Intruders attacked, sinking one Boghammer and driving the rest aground on nearby Abu Musa Island.

Soon afterward American sensors detected an Iranian Saam-class frigate—the same class as the Sabalan—heading for the area. An A-6 sought to identify the contact using its forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR), while an accompanying F-14 Tomcat employed its onboard TV camera. Aware of the close call that SAG Bravo had had with the Soviet destroyer that afternoon, Less wanted a positive visual identification. The A-6 therefore swooped in low to eyeball the vessel, which turned out to be not the Sabalan but its sister ship, the Sahand. As the Intruder passed low over the Sahand, the Iranian ship opened fire with both triple-A and surface-to-air missiles. The A-6 dropped flares to confuse the tracking radar of the Sahand’s missiles, then counterattacked, firing a Harpoon, several rockets, and a Mark 82 laser-guided bomb that tracked along the laser beam to hit the Sahand precisely on target. By the time SAG Delta arrived on the scene, the Sahand was dead in the water and on fire.

SAG Delta consisted of the Adams-class guided-missile destroyer Joseph Strauss, the Spruance-class destroyer O’Brien, and the Perry-class frigate Jack Williams. In addition to these surface assets, the air boss on the Enterprise had launched a strike force as soon as he heard that the Sahand had fired on an American aircraft. Even as the ships of SAG Delta closed on the crippled and burning Sahand, six A-7 attack planes and another A-6 were also streaking toward the target. The Straus fired a surface-to-surface Harpoon at almost the same time that an A-6 fired an air-to-surface Harpoon, and both missiles smashed into the Sahand, exploding nearly simultaneously. Altogether more than a dozen warheads struck the burning vessel, including several thousand-pound laser-guided bombs. By then the Sahand was already sinking. Within minutes its magazine exploded and it disappeared.

The Iranian Saam-class frigate Sahand on fire from stem to stern as a result of multiple hits by both surface- and air-launched missiles. (U.S. Navy)

It had been a spectacular day for American arms. Granted, the United States had overwhelming superiority in both numbers and technology, but the American strike force had destroyed three armed oil platforms and sunk two warships while suffering only the loss of the two men on the missing Cobra helicopter.

Then, late in the afternoon, American forces found the Sabalan. An A-6 investigating a suspicious contact in the Strait of Hormuz near Bandar Abbas identified what appeared to be a Saam-class frigate that subsequently proved to be the much-despised Sabalan. As the American Intruder approached, the ship sent up a stream of antiaircraft fire; having been fired on, the pilot immediately counterattacked, dropping a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb right down the stack. It exploded inside the Sabalan’s engine room. The ship seemed to expand like a balloon from the internal explosion, then the hull relapsed and the ship went dead in the water. At last U.S. naval forces had the Sabalan right where they wanted it: exposed and immobile—a sitting duck for more airstrikes or surface-launched Harpoons. SAG Delta and a fresh squadron of attack planes were already en route. By now, of course, the whole notion of “proportionality” had been blown to bits, and back in the Navy Command Center in Washington, Secretary of Defense Carlucci turned to Admiral Crowe to ask, “What should we do?” Crowe shook his head: “We’ve killed enough people.” With Carlucci’s approval, Crowe issued orders to call off the hunt and allow the Sabalan to limp back into port. Operation Praying Mantis was over.

The events of April 18 did not end hostilities in the Gulf—there was one more scene in the drama. Ten weeks later, in early July, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Vincennes escorted the crippled Samuel B. Roberts through the Strait of Hormuz on the first leg of its long trip home. The Vincennes was one of the newest ships in the Navy and was equipped with the AEGIS fire control system, a cutting-edge integrated computer system that allowed a single ship to monitor and engage multiple surface and air targets simultaneously. Not entirely in admiration, the men of more conventional cruisers called it “Robocruiser.” In its darkened CIC, the computers projected illuminated maps of the region on four giant screens, allowing the decision makers to monitor virtually all air and surface traffic in the area, each contact indicated on the screen by a tiny symbol showing the contact’s course and speed. The computers also fed targeting information directly to the guns and missile systems so that it was no longer necessary to compute a target solution before engaging.

The Vincennes replaced the Wainwright in May. Its skipper was a Texas-born career officer with the all-American name of Will Rogers, though, as he often had to tell people, he was not related to the famous humorist. Returning back through the strait that evening after seeing the Roberts on its way, the Vincennes picked up a distress call from a Danish tanker that was under attack by Iranian Boghammers. Heading back into the Gulf, Rogers ordered the U.S. frigate Elmer Montgomery to lob a star shell at the Boghammers, chasing them back into Iranian waters.

The combat information center (CIC) on board the USS Vincennes. (U.S. Navy)

Rogers then shaped a course for Bahrain, but before the Vincennes was more than halfway there he received another distress call. The Boghammers were at it again. Racing back to the scene of the trouble, Rogers sent a helicopter aloft to get a clear view of what was going on. As the helicopter approached the Boghammers, they opened fire on it. Rogers immediately ordered flank speed and closed on the offending gunboats in order to put them inside the envelope of his weapons. Rogers showed remarkable restraint in not opening fire at once. One Iranian Boghammer passed between the Vincennes and the Elmer Montgomery; the guns of the Vincennes tracked it as it passed, but because “it didn’t show hostile intent,” Rogers allowed the little open motorboat to pass unmolested. Not long afterward, however, seven of the small gunboats gathered for what looked like a “swarm attack,” where the enemy presented so many high-speed targets that the object of the assault could not respond effectively. Rogers requested permission to open fire, and Less radioed him to “take with guns.” The AEGIS system allowed the men in the Vincennes’s CIC to aim the ship’s guns at multiple targets, even after the forward gun slipped a pawl and became inoperative. At 10:42 A.M., as the officers and men in the crowded CIC concentrated on the multiple pips on their radar repeaters, they also picked up an air contact.

The plane that appeared on the large air-search display in the CIC had flown out of the Iranian airport at Bandar Abbas and was approaching at high speed. Rogers knew there was a squadron of Iranian attack planes at Bandar Abbas, and he immediately sent out a challenge on the emergency frequency ordering the contact to turn away from the combat area. There was no response. Nor was there a clear signal from the plane’s transponder—the electronic device designed to indicate whether it was a civilian or a military aircraft. The contact was assigned a tracking number, and with the fate of the Stark in the back of his mind, at 10:51 Rogers declared the contact “presumed hostile.”

Meanwhile the fight with the Boghammers was intensifying; small-arms ammunition struck the bridge of the Vincennes as it maneuvered to unmask its five-inch gun astern. The air contact was still closing, and the officer reading the air plot screen reported that it appeared to be descending as well, as if preparing to launch a missile. In his mind, Rogers had decided to fire if the contact came within twenty miles (the Iraqi F-1 that had nearly sunk the Stark had fired from twelve miles). But when the contact crossed that twenty-mile limit, Rogers still hesitated. He tried the radio one more time. Receiving no reply, at 10:54 A.M. he ordered the weapons officer to fire two standard missiles in air mode. By then the contact was only nine miles away.

Nine thousand feet above the Gulf, Iran Airlines flight 655, a commercial airliner with 290 people on board, was heading for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on a scheduled flight. The pilot, Captain Mohsen Reza’i, was monitoring flight information from both Bandar Abbas and Dubai and was not tuned in to the emergency radio circuit. He never heard any of Captain Rogers’ seven warnings. When two U.S. Navy Standard missiles struck the fuselage, the plane broke apart at once. There were no survivors.

The events of April 18 were decisive in the Iran-Iraq War. This was not so much because of Operation Praying Mantis as because of Iraq’s massive ground attack on the Faw Peninsula that same day. Of course, the U.S. Navy’s near destruction of the Iranian navy played its own role in convincing Tehran that it was time to accept an end to hostilities. On July 18— three months to the day after Praying Mantis (and fifteen days after the loss of Iran Airlines 655)—Iran accepted the terms of United Nations Resolution 598. Three weeks after that, a cease-fire went into effect only weeks before what would have been the eighth anniversary of the third bloodiest war of the twentieth century.

The events of April 18, 1988, were decisive for the United States, too, for they illuminated not only the dramatic changes that had taken place in the nature of naval warfare since World War II but also the front edge of what would become a new philosophy about the role that the United States and the U.S. Navy should play in the world. Several aspects of those changes are evident in hindsight.

First there was the American decision to act as an armed enforcer in a war between two nations (neither of which was a particular friend) halfway around the globe. After some ambivalence, the Reagan administration accepted the responsibility to act as a kind of regional policeman in the Persian Gulf even though, in the end, it found impartiality impossible. Convinced that U.S. interests were tied up in protecting the export of oil shipments from the Gulf and preventing the expansion of Soviet influence in the region, the United States put itself in the middle of the conflict.

That decision created a difficult environment for Navy commanders. They could defend themselves if fired upon, but much of the time they were never sure who the enemy was or what they were allowed to do. Ambiguity in war was not new, of course. As far back as the American Revolution or as recently as Vietnam, ambiguity and uncertainty were central elements in many of America’s wars. What was new in the Persian Gulf was that the latest generation of electronic weapons so compressed the decision making process that commanders had only minutes, and sometimes seconds, to make life-and-death decisions. Brindel, in the Stark, erred in demonstrating too much restraint; Rogers, in the Vincennes, was determined not to make the same mistake.

Indeed, those weapons systems constituted the most dramatic aspect of this changed paradigm of war. Praying Mantis was the first large-scale surface action involving U.S. naval forces since the end of World War II. In those four-plus decades, several generations of weapons systems had come and gone. The sophisticated, electronically based weapons systems used in Praying Mantis, though they had been tested in development and in training, had never been used in combat with a hostile force. The Wainwright was the first U.S. warship ever to fire missiles at both surface and air targets in the same engagement and also the first to fire an SM-2 missile in combat; the Joseph Strauss and an A-6 from the Enterprise participated in the first ever coordinated surface/air attack in sinking the Sahand. In that sense, Praying Mantis was a testing ground. The U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Carlisle Trost, remarked, “We spent a lot of effort and taxpayer’s dollars . . . to achieve the level of readiness that we enjoy today. What our people saw was an opportunity for the first time under hostile conditions to use both their sensors and weapons; and they worked as advertised.”

Equally dramatic was the changed environment in military communications. It took weeks for Oliver Hazard Perry to communicate with his superior at Sackett’s Harbor, and once George Dewey left Hong Kong, he was out of touch with his superiors altogether. At Midway, Jack Waldron and Wade McClusky made decisions on the spur of the moment while operating under radio silence. But the chain of command during Praying Mantis extended from the bridge of a warship (or the cockpit of an A-6) all the way to the White House. Twice on that April 18, operational commanders received instructions from literally the highest level. To many Navy people this was both good news and bad news. It was great to have globe-circling, real-time communications. But it also meant that a president, a defense secretary, or a chief of naval operations in Washington might become the tactical decision maker in a battle taking place six thousand miles away, and not every U.S. Navy officer was comfortable with that. One hundred years earlier a senior American naval officer had complained that the telegraph cable had reduced him to “a damned errand boy at the end of a telegraph wire.” One can only imagine his reaction to the communications network of the late twentieth century.

Praying Mantis was also a model of what defense policy analysts were calling “jointness.” Powerful as the U.S. Navy was in 1988, it was even more powerful when linked to Air Force and Army assets as well as its Marine Corps partners. Air Force AWACS airplanes maintained an intelligence picture for Navy surface assets; Army Sea Bats helicopters, flying off Navy frigates, identified and attacked Iranian mine layers; Marines, SEALs, and Army Rangers all participated in the carefully selected proportional responses chosen for them by their civilian masters. Presiding over all of it was a marine general in Florida, who gave orders to a Navy admiral in the Persian Gulf, who then gave orders to what was called the Joint Task Force Middle East.

Moreover, Operation Praying Mantis demonstrated rather dramatically how impersonal naval warfare had become in the electronic age. The men manning the guns on Perry’s Lawrence could see into the faces of their foes; Dewey’s gunners could at least see the ships of their opponents; if Spruance never saw the carriers his pilots attacked, the pilots themselves confronted the enemy in a very personal way. But in the Persian Gulf, dangerous as it was, the enemy was always faceless. Those who “turned the key” on their weapons consoles to fire the missiles that sank the Joshan never left the air-conditioned environment of the CIC. The only time Chandler saw the face of his enemy was when intelligence specialists opened a classified folder and showed him a photograph.

And finally, Praying Mantis demonstrated the extent to which America’s technological and operational superiority had outpaced the rest of the world. As subsequent events in the Persian Gulf would demonstrate, the events of April 18, 1988, offered only the first glimpse of the stunning technological revolution, already under way, that over the next decade and a half would make the United States not merely a “superpower,” not merely the greatest military power on earth, but the greatest military power the world had ever seen. Ironically, this new capability did not just evoke awe from America’s partners (and its adversaries); it also contributed to a new sense of wariness. In the absence of the Soviet rivalry after 1989, the United States represented such a dominant military force, possessed of such a futuristic technology, that its actions took on a new, and to some very frightening, significance. The very success of that new technology fed an assumption among many that American weapons were infallible and that the shooting down of the Iran Airlines Airbus must therefore have been a deliberate act. A decade later, when three U.S. missiles fired at Bosnian assets in the former Yugoslavia instead hit the Chinese embassy, U.S. diplomats found it impossible to convince the Chinese that it had been a genuine mistake. The very technical dominance that was supposed to undergird American policy goals also provoked fear, skepticism, and even hatred in certain quarters.

The United States would discover that there would be little gratitude, even from its traditional allies, for its new assumption of authority as the world’s cop.

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