America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain

Isn’t it funny how the same parts of the world seem to feature in military history, again and again. No doubt spurred on by rising tensions between Iran and the US, this fine book by Lee Alan Zatarain has been published in the UK by Casemate.

The book starts with a gripping account of the Exocet strike on the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate. She was struck by two Exocets, but despite intense fires and the loss of dozens of crew she somehow survived. It’s a gripping story of an ops room that was not quite on the ball on the one hand, but then some heroic efforts to save the ship on the other. In fact several officers were reprimanded for not defending the ship, but also decorated for then saving it. There are interesting parallels here with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands.

The Tanker War in the Gulf of the late 198o’s was an off-shoot of the bloody Iran-Iraq War, between a despotic Saddam Hussein on the one side and an Islamic Revolutionary Ayatollah Khomenei on the other. Both sides depended on oil to fund their war efforts, but at the same time sought to deny the other side their supply. Both belligerents targeted neutral commercial shipping, particularly oil tankers, using anti-ship missiles, mines and terrorist tactics.

The US Navy was drawn into the Gulf to protect shipping, after a number of neutral owned tankers were re-flagged under the stars and stripes. US Frigates and Destroyers began escorting convoys of tankers through the Straits of Hormuz and up to the oil terminals in the Gulf, as far as Kuwait. In one slightly embarrasing incident, a large tanker hit a mine, but the smaller and lighter warships cowered behind her, seeking protection in her wake.

The Iranians began using small fast craft to terrorize commecial shipping in the Gulf, and also laid hundreds if not thousands of mines in the Gulf. To counter against these classic low intensity tactics, the US transferred a unit of Army Special Forces Helicopters, with advanced equipment that enabled them to operate at night. The US Navy also leased two large barges, and moored them in the Gulf as Mobile Sea Bases. These heavily armoured bastions provided a home to Navy SEALs and their fast attack craft.

Another disaster befell the US Navy when the USS Samuel Roberts found herself stuck in an uncharted Iranian minefield. After striking a mine the crew managed to back their way out of the area while keeping the ship afloat; an extraordinary achievement for the Captain and crew. In fact one US Laboratory modelled the mine strike on the Roberts, and each time the ship sank within minutes. That the Roberts survived was no doubt due to some very able officers and men, and a first-class leadership culture.

The Roberts incident contrasts starkly with the situation that allowed the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruiser USS Vincennes to shoot down an Iran Air Airbus after wrongly identifying it as a Iranian Air Force Phantom. How the most technically advanced ship in the US Navy managed to make such a fateful decision is startling. However videos shot on the Vincennes at the time show sailors in shorts and t-shirt milling around on the bridge, and whooping with delight at the missile strikes. Earlier that day she had been in action against some Iranian surface vessels, and it is believed that her gung-ho Captain had let his offensive spirit kick into over-drive. Whats more, before reaching the Gulf he had re-arranged his command team, a move which made it more difficult for air warfare to be properly managed.

The Vincennes incident in particular is very well investigated and summarised by Zatarain. And this is a book that naval history enthusiasts and indeed naval officers should enjoy, particulary in this world where we face a multitude of low-intensity asymetric wars on the one hand, and a resurgent Iran on the other. It poses interesting questions about naval units were handled in trying circumstances, only a couple of years after the lessons of the Falklands War.

Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain is published by Casemate

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12 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized

12 responses to “America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain

  1. John Erickson

    I could argue that the abortive attempt to rescue the Embassy hostages, which ended so horrifically at “Desert One”, was the first. But let it slip this time. :)
    “Crossroads of history”, I think is the phrase. Somewhere that all powers will have to pass through, sooner or later. Gibraltar, the English Channel, the North Atlantic, the southwesterly Pacific have all been witness to many battles, and most likely will in the future.
    It’s a hackneyed old phrase, but “the fog of war” is a powerful player in such scenarios as the USS Vincennes shooting. Bear in mind this was 23 years ago. Remember what computers and TVs looked like back then (if you were around, i.e. if you’re one of us old farts). Control rooms like that on the cruiser are dark and hot, which puts stress on the crew. Add in the need for a quick “bogey/bandit” identification, and an understandable, if not condonable, “trigger-happy” tendency of a crew that were facing a known hostile power and had already been assaulted earlier that day. I’m not saying the commander and command crew were innocent of wrong-doing, just that “Monday morning quarterbacking” can quickly turn a series of incorrect but well-intentioned actions into a seemingly bloodthirsty killing berserk.

  2. The downing of the Iranian airbus was a tragedy – but it was an accident, unlike deliberate state sponsored attacks on airliners such as Lockerbie.

    Lessons were learnt.

  3. James Daly

    I seem to remember the Task Force almost splashed a Brazilian 747 over the mid-Atlantic after mistaking it for one of the Args reconnaisance planes. That would have changed the course of history…

  4. Yes, another reason to have carrier borne fixed wing…. (getting a visual ID, which I expect will be even more important in likely operating areas today).

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