After the Iranian Navy fired shots across the bow of the Marshall Island-flagged vessel Maersk Tigris, and forced the cargo ship into Bander Abbas, the U.S. Navy has confirmed that American warships will be accompanying American-flagged ships through the Gulf.
During the 1980’s, the U.S. Navy reflagged and escorted numerous Kuwaiti vessels to ports in the Persian Gulf to prevent the withering Iranian Navy from acting provocatively. The Iran-Iraq war was going on and the Kuwaiti government was concerned about Iranian attacks on its shipping.
The attacks, though, were begun by Iraq. From 1981 to 1984, Iraqi forces attacked shipping in the Gulf without a response from Iran. When Iran responded, the U.S. Navy began reflagging all tankers and promised a response to Iranian attacks. The Navy justified this taking of sides by pointing out that even though the Iraqi’s were attacking shipping, it was confined to Iranian shipping. Iran, on the other hand, did not confine itself to just attacking Iraqi shipping, targeting Kuwaiti ships and other neutrals.
Kuwait asked both the United States and the Soviet Union to escort their ships and both countries did so. The Soviet presence was smaller than the Americans and, even though the Soviets lost a ship to mine attacks and had one of their merchant vessels attacked by the Iranians, the response from the Soviets was much milder than the one from the Americans. The Americans, still smarting from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, took a more provocative stance.
Operation Praying Mantis kicked off in April 1987 in retaliation of the mining of the USS Samuel Roberts and was the largest Navy combat operation since World War II. Two surface action groups attacked the Sirri and Sassan oil platforms. The attacks were conducted successfully and Iranian air attacks on one of the SAGs was aborted after the USS Lynde McCormick locked its fire control radar on the Iranian F-4s. Iranian boghammers (small speedboats armed with personal weapons and man-portable rocket launchers) attacked three different ships in response to the attack and the Iranian frigate Sahand sortied to challenge one of the SAGs. The Sahand was sunk by missile and bomb attacks and another frigate, the Sabalon, was crippled when it fired an anti-air missile at a group of A-6E Intruders.
The attack crippled the Iranian Navy with a loss of two Marine aviators. After pulling the wreckage of their helicopter from the Gulf, no battle damage was detected. Unfortunately, two months after Operation Praying Mantis, the USS Vincennes shot down the Iranian Air flight 655 killing all 290 passengers and crew.
During the eight years that the United States conducted the reflagging campaign, a permanent presence in the Gulf was established and the Reagan Administration aligned itself closer with Iraq. This continued even after the exocet-missile attack on the U.S.S. Stark in May 1987.
Although the reflagging campaign can be viewed successfully, it set in motion a number of problems that we, as a country, are still dealing with today. Increased military presence in the Middle East, the First and Second Gulf War and our rapprochement with Iran, just to name three.
As a country, we have an obligation to support our allies and protect their interests. However, we also have an obligation to protect our own country and further our goals in the Middle East and other regions. Threading the needle of doing what we need to do, without damaging our reputation in the area will be a challenge for this, or any, administration. This is not the same world as it was thirty years ago and the solutions from that time may not be the best solutions for now.
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