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World

When The US Navy Took On The Boghammars

What happened when the United States last engaged in combat operations with Iran?

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Tensions between the United States and Iran have returned with the death of one of the latter's top commanders, General Qassem Soleimani, in a US air strike.

It comes after last year's sabotage attacks of four oil tanker vessels off the United Arab Emirates coastline, which had echoes of the build-up to the last direct combat operations involving the US and Iran, during at the end of the 1980s in the Iran-Iraq war.

During that conflict, both countries carried out attacks on tankers at sea and other oil infrastructure.

In 1986, the Iranian’s captured the Al-Faw peninsular in an amphibious assault where they lost 10,000 troops to chemical weapons.

After this, Iraq was landlocked and it needed to export oil through Kuwait.

Iran started attacking Kuwaiti tankers transiting the Gulf. The Kuwaitis then asked the US to reflag 10 of their tankers as American, which they reluctantly agreed to do in 1987.

A US sailor on lookout for mines during a convoy support mission. (Image: US Navy)
A US sailor on lookout for mines during a convoy support mission (Picture: US Navy).

The Gulf at that time was a dangerous place and, in May 1987, the frigate USS Stark was accidentally damaged by two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi Mirage F1 aircraft, killing 37 US sailors.

In July 1987, the first convoy escort of Kuwaiti tankers began as part of Operation Earnest Will. It was transiting the narrow Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf when the tanker MV Bridgetown hit an Iranian mine.  

To counter the threat of Iran interfering with shipping in the Gulf, the US launched Operation Prime Chance. 

This involved SEAL team commandos in patrol boats and Cayuse Little Bird reconnaissance helicopters from the US Army 'Night Stalkers' operating off two large converted barges in the northern Gulf.

US Navy patrol boat tied up to US barge being used for combat operations. (Image: US Navy)
US Navy patrol boat tied up to US barge being used for combat operations (Picture: US Navy).

On 21 September 1987, the US filmed an Iranian ship, the Iran Ajr, laying mines.

US helicopters attacked firing rockets and miniguns. Five Iranians were killed and the rest abandoned ship. Following an inspection for evidence, the Iran Ajr was scuttled.

This attack is believed to be the first use of night vision goggles and forward-looking infra-red radar by helicopters in combat.

In October, the Iranians retaliated by striking the Kuwaiti tanker MV Sea Isle City with a Silkworm missile fired from the al-Faw Peninsula.

The US Navy response was swift. Three days later they launched operation Nimble Archer. This was an attack by four US destroyers on two oil platforms being used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards as bases to operate their Boghammar fast attack craft. 

The US destroyers gave the platforms 20 minutes to evacuate before being bombarded by naval gunfire.

Iranian oil platform on fire after being shelled by five US frigates. (Image: US Navy)
An Iranian oil platform on fire after being shelled by five US frigates (Picture: US Navy).

The next six months was a period of relative calm until in April 1998 the frigate US Samuel B Roberts hit a mine. The frigate was able to reach Dubai but US Navy divers identified other mines found in the area as the same batch as were used in previous Iranian attacks.

In response, the US launched operation Praying Mantis, which was the largest US Naval combat engagement since the Second World War.

Two Surface Action Groups of US Naval ships attacked three Iranian oil platforms. They again gave the occupants 20 minutes warning to evacuate before attacking with ships main guns and Cobra helicopter gunships.

Several civilian ships and oil platforms were then attacked by lightly-armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Boghammar speedboats, which were in turn targeted by US A-6E Intruder aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise using cluster bombs. These sank one Boghammer and damaged two others.

The USS Wainwright and USS Simpson then had an exchange of missile fire with the Joshan, an Iranian missile boat that fired a Harpoon missile which the US ships lured away using chaff.

The US ships sank the Joshan with five Standard missiles. They were being circled by two Iranian F4 Phantom jets before the USS Wainwright damaged one with a surface-to-air missile. After that, the Phantoms withdrew to Bandar Abbas in the Straits of Hormuz.

The Iranian frigate Sahand then departed Bandar Abbas and fired surface-to-air missiles at US Intruder aircraft. The US planes returned fire with six Harpoon and Skipper missiles, sinking the Sahand.

Iranian frigate Sahand on fire before sinking. (Image: US Navy)
Iranian frigate Sahand on fire before sinking (Picture: US Navy).

Later, the Iranian frigate Sabalan engaged two US Intruder aircraft, which replied by damaging the Sabalan with a laser-guided bomb. The Iranian frigate survived and is still part of the Iranian navy.

During the combat, a US Cobra crashed with the loss of its two crew.

Operation Preying Mantis ended hostilities apart from one final tragic incident on 3 July 1988.

US Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Vincennes was patrolling the Straits of Hormuz when her helicopter came under fire from Boghammar craft.

USS Vincennes pursued the Boghammars into Iranian territorial waters but then picked up an aircraft approaching on the ship's sophisticated Aegis combat radar.

Vincennes mistook the aircraft for an Iranian F14 Tomcat and shot it down with two Standard missiles.

It was, in fact, an Iranian Airbus on route to Dubai with 290 people on board. All passengers and crew died.

In August 1988, the war between Iran and Iraq - which cost an estimated one million fatalities - ended.

Two years later, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

For more on this story, watch this US Navy video:

Cover image: USS Vincennes launching a Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) Medium Range (MR) from its deck (Picture: US Navy).