Operation Praying Mantis

Sunday, August 27, 2006

In the post below concerning the release of the journalists commenter lurker links to a story about the Iranian navy testing missiles. This brought to mind a naval battle fought in 1988 between the US and Iran. I bet most people today know nothing about Operation Praying Mantis.

From Wikipedia :

Operation Praying Mantis was the April 18, 1988 action waged by U.S. naval forces in retaliation for the Iranian mining of an American warship by the Iran Ajr.

The April 14 mining nearly sank the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, which was sailing in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will, the 1987-88 convoy missions in which U.S. warships escorted reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers to protect them from Iranian attacks. By the time the Roberts was towed to Dubai on April 15, battered but saved with no loss of life, U.S. planning for the retaliatory operation had already begun in Washington and in the Middle East.

The Iran Ajr was linked to the mineblast when military explosives analysts discovered that the serial codes on the mines matched those on the Iran Ajr. Operation Praying Mantis ensued, as the United States Navy retaliated against the Iran Ajr and attacked many other Iranian vessels.

The battle, the largest between surface forces since World War II, sank two Iranian warships and as many as six armed speedboats (in addition to the Iran Ajr). The attack by the U.S. may have helped pressure Iran to agree to a ceasefire with Iraq later that summer, ending the eight-year conflict between the Persian Gulf neighbors.

The battle

On April 18, 1988, the Americans responded with several groups of surface warships, plus airplanes from the carrier USS Enterprise. The action began with coordinated strikes by two surface groups. One group, consisting of two destroyers and the amphibious transport dock USS Trenton, attacked the Sassan oil platform while the other, which included a guided missile cruiser and two frigates, attacked the Sirri oil platform. U.S. Marines from Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) 2-88 fast-roped onto the Sassan platform, gathered intelligence, and set explosives to disable it.

Iran responded by dispatching Boghammar speedboats to attack various targets in the Persian Gulf, including an American-flagged supply ship and a Panamanian-flagged ship. After these attacks, A-6E Intruder aircraft from VA-95 were vectored in on the speedboats by an American frigate. The aircraft dropped Rockeye cluster bombs on the speedboats, sinking one and damaging several others.

Action continued to escalate. Joshan, an Iranian Combattante II Kaman-class fast attack craft, challenged USS Wainwright (CG-28) and her surface group, firing a Harpoon missile at them. The American ships responded to the challenge by firing six Standard missiles and one Harpoon at Joshan, destroying it. Fighting continued when the Iranian frigate Sahand departed Bandar Abbas and challenged elements of an American surface group. She was observed by two VA-95 A-6Es while they were flying surface combat air patrol for USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16).
Iranian frigate IS Sahand (74) burning on April 18, 1988 after being attacked
Iranian frigate IS Sahand (74) burning on April 18, 1988 after being attacked

Sahand launched missiles at the A-6Es, and the Intruders replied with launches of two Harpoons and four laser-guided Skipper bombs. This was followed by a Harpoon firing from Joseph Strauss. The weapons delivered against Sahand were successful.

Fires blazing on her decks eventually reached her magazines, resulting in an explosion that led to her sinking. Despite the loss of Sahand, one of Iran's most modern ships, the Iranian navy continued to fight. A sister ship, Sabalan, departed her port for operations in the Persian Gulf. She fired on several A-6Es from VA-95 with a surface-to-air missile. One of the Intruders responded with a laser-guided bomb that hit Sabalan and stopped her dead in the water. The Iranian frigate was taken in tow by an Iranian tug with the stern partially submerged. VA-95's aircraft, as ordered, did not continue the attack.

By the end of the operation elements of the American fleet had damaged Iranian naval and intelligence facilities on two inoperable oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, and sank at least six armed Iranian speedboats. Sabalan was repaired in 1989 and has since been upgraded, and is still in service with the Iranian navy. In short, Iran lost one major warship and a smaller gunboat. Damage to the oil platforms was eventually repaired and they are now back in service.

The U.S. side took only two casualties: the aircrew of a Marine Corps AH-1T Sea Cobra gunship. The Cobra, attached to the USS Trenton, was flying reconnaissance from the Wainwright and crashed sometime after dark about 15 miles southwest of Abu Musa island. The bodies of Capt. Stephen C. Leslie, 30, of New Bern, N.C., and Capt. Kenneth W. Hill, 33, of Thomasville, N.C., were recovered by Navy divers in May, and the wreckage of the helicopter was raised later that month. Navy officials said it showed no sign of battle damage, though the aircraft could have crashed while trying to evade Iranian fire.

We won.


lurker said...

Hi, I didn't know about the Operation Praying Mantis but after reading this, I now wonder if we would see not only a repeat of Operation Praying Mantis but with nuclear tipped missiles.

terrye said...


I hope not. To be truthful I don't think [knock on wood] it is necessary. I don't think most people, and that includes most Americans, have any idea just how much damage we can do with conventional weapons, if we really let em fly.

ambisinistral said...

I have an oddball conection to that battle. One of the DDGs involved in it, the Lynde McCormack (DDG8), was a ship I served on.

I remember watching it shelling one of the platforms on the nightly news. It kept missing, a fact that didn't really surprise me because when I was aboard it we couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with those blasted guns. From the looks of the platform, they did manage to get its range eventually.

Another piece of Lynda Maru trivia -- during the Yom Kippur war it was deployed with a TF built around the Enterprise to the Middle East. While there we patrolled the Gulfs of Oman and Aden. Eventually the McCormack and another destroyer ran a South Yemani (backed by Somalia) blockade of the Bab El-Mendab straights and entered the Red Sea, where we lucked out and got a port call in Massawa Ethiopia.

As far as I know it was the first large scale deployment of US forces to the western side of the Indian Ocean. We had been sailing in the Gulf of Tonkin when the Yom Kippur war started.

I guess you could say that, without knowing it at the time, I crossed the interface between the late 20th Century Cold War and the Jihadi Wars of the 21st Century those many years ago.

sammy small said...

Praying Mantis was a part of the Ernest Will takner escort operations. An excellent account of that operation can be found here.

If you don't remember much of the Hercules barge in the news, that's because it wasn't publicized.

A little story about some field engineers that the Army requested we provide... one of my guys balked at going over for his stint aboard the barge. After giving him the choice of changing jobs or going, he finally decided he would go, like the other guys did. Wouldn't you know that his tour aboard the Hercules resulted in the one time that the barge commander thought they were coming under attack. In the end, there were only frayed nerves. Murphy's law I guess.


No Higher Honor said...

I've got a new book out about the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), the ship that hit the mine and precipitated Operation Praying Mantis. It's called No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf (Naval Institute Press, 2006). The companion web site has photos and audio and video clips related to the Roberts and the battle, which was the world' largest surface-warfare action since World War II.

Harold said...

I have written a book about the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf during the years 1987-1988.


gschultz545 said...

I too was there. I was on the staff of COMCURDEGRU Three, Admiral Guy Zeller's staff.
I was one of his staff officers.
I was in the command center when the airborn E-2 was asked by the F-14's to "take" the hostile air off the coast of Iran. The hostile had a previously existing comair designation matching it on the JOTS screen. They were in tandem. I recommended the contact not be taken, as it was most likely the daily Airbus which those of us who regularly stood watch had seen there. It proved to be comair.
USS Vincennes later did a splash of a bogey on what I heard was a similar profile, which also proved to be comair.

WilliamD said...

I was there aboard the Trenton and Capt Lelslie was my OIC and a damn find Marine. I also was part of the team that took apart and boxed up that cobra. Any questions just mail me and I'll answer best I can.

mike said...

I was also in HML/A-167. I was the aviation safety officer for the squadron and did the investigation of the wreckage. Captains Leslie and Hill (Hook and Grinch) were two of the best Cobra pilots the Marines have ever had. They served their nation proudly that day. I have visited their graves many times at Arlington.

Anonymous said...

I was part of the operation preying mantis aboard uss coronado agf-11. Remember it well we were all on high alert those days. GQ was a common thing in the gulf when ever a plane flew over.

joe gleason said...

i was one of the first marines to fast rope off the helo that day onto the sasson platform. proud day for our unit.