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The Tanker War

Active Military
Active Military
June 18, 2019
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When I joined the “Fleet” just a few months before deploying for what would later be known as the “Gulf War”, there were only a few types walking around the Navy and Marine Corps who rated a Combat Action Ribbon; the handful of Vietnam veterans who were now senior enlisted leaders or senior officers, the few veterans of Beirut and Grenada, and a very few that had been part of a seldom talked about conflict known as the “Tanker War”.For the past week, the news has been filled with coverage of recent Iranian aggression directed at the oil tankers from the mainly Arab Gulf States such as Oman. This comes after a series of belligerence from the Iranians for more than a decade that included the apprehension of a US Navy crew in 2016 as well as fifteen British sailors in 2007.But this belligerence on the part of Iran dates to a series of events in the mid to late 1980s known as the “Tanker War”.A Different Era in the GulfIn July 1987, Iran and Iraq were seven years into what would be eight years of war with one another, the past three years of which were known as the Tanker War phase. Iraq at the time was not seen as a threat to its Arab neighbors, in fact, the oil-rich nations of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and even Kuwait provided considerable financial support to Iraq as Iraq was, in fact, the buffer to any Iranian invasion of the Gulf States. Iraq took direct action to disrupt Iran’s shipping using the recently purchased Exocet missiles.Iran saw an opportunity to extort the Gulf states as well as hinder their main source of income by leveraging their naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait of Hormuz is 21 nautical miles with coastlines in Iran, the UAE, and Oman, it is the one and only exit and entry point for ships from the Gulf into and from the Ocean, a critical choke point that can have severe consequences for stability not just in the region but to any nation that imports oil from the Gulf. This was the exact intent of Iran as it is today.Iran deployed it's Navy’s “Revolutionary Guard” who saturated the Strait of Hormuz in armed speed boats as well laying mines in the path of oil tankers. A series of attacks were carried out by Iran against tankers. In addition to the disruption to global commerce, there were fears among the Arab Gulf States that portions of Iraq like Basra would fall to pro- Iranian factions and truly change the balance of power in Iran’s favor.The United States IntervenesAfter considerable requests from the Arab states as well as NATO allies, the United States intervened. In the early hours of July 24th, 1987, the US Navy began Operation Earnest Will, this would be one of the largest Naval operations since the second World War. The US Navy began escorting oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz, this left Iran no choice but to engage in hostilities with the US. At the same time agreements were put in place to “re-flag” tankers from Kuwait in particular, making any attack or obstruction by the Iranians as a hostile act toward the United States.The operation would last over a year, ending on the 26th of September 1988. During this time, two other operations were conducted by US Navy SEAL teams and US Marine Corps Maritime Special Purpose Force units (MSPF) from Battalion Landing Team 1/4, most of these involved securing oil platforms, boarding and seizing Revolutionary Guard vessels. This was also one of the first joint task forces that included the US Air Force’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR aka the “Nightstalkers”) operating with Navy and Marine Corps units. The two operations under Earnest Will were Operations Nimble Archer and Praying Mantis.Operation Nimble Archer was ordered by President Reagan after USS Stark was attacked, killing thirty-seven American sailors, as well as the mining of a Kuwaiti tanker that had been re-flagged as an American ship. During Nimble Archer, several Revolutionary Guard operations were destroyed by naval gunfire, after which SEAL teams and Marine Corps units seized equipment and intelligence. Operation Praying Mantis was initiated in response to the Iranian direct attack on the USS Samuel B. Roberts on April 15th, 1988 near Bahrain. Several Iranian ships were destroyed as well as several oil platforms that Iran was using as advanced sea bases.These operations ultimately led to the Iranians ceasing its belligerence in waters of the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, confining its operations against Iraq to their land borders. While the US could boast significant success in these operations, the media focused it’s coverage to the incident of July 3rd 1988 when the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down what it believed to be an Iranian F-14 (prior to Iranian Revolution, Iran had purchased F-14’s from the US), the downed aircraft turned out to be an Iran Air Airbus A300B2, carrying 290 civilians all of whom died.

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Photo taken by the writer and an Anglican Church in March 2018, Dubai, UAEIran Backs DownBy late 1988 commerce was again moving freely through the Strait of Hormuz, the war between Iran and Iraq had come to a costly and deadly end with an immense human cost.There was also another dividend of Operation Earnest Will that would be realized less than two years later. When Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2nd, 1990, the US Navy was already well versed in operation in this region, powerful relationships had been built allowing for major port access in Bahrain and the UAE.Today's RelevanceThe US Navy along with the Marine Corps has been at home in the waters of the Gulf since Operation Earnest Will and has never left through the Gulf War of 1991, and the many years of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. Iran’s leaders and its military would be wise to study history. There is no question Iran can start a lot of trouble and inflict some serious pain, but history tells us that they would pay a high price for little or no gain.The United States also has some important lessons to learn from these late 1980's operations. These operations showed the importance of small unit effectiveness in a maritime environment, in recent years both US Navy Special Warfare units as well as Marine Corps units have been trying to return the fundamentals of sea-based small unit operations such as boat raids and ship to ship helicopter insertions. During the long campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan which were mainly land-based, both the Navy and Marine Corps drifted away from the fundamentals of amphibious and expeditionary warfare. Both services have done their best in the last few years to re-train and reorganize, our effectiveness in future operations depends greatly on a return to these capabilities.

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