On the evening of April 14th, 1988, the crew of the USS Samuel B. Roberts were on alert as they navigated through an eastbound shipping lane in the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Earnest Will. Their mission was to protect US-flagged tankers as they transited through international waters from the constant threat Iranian fast-attack surface vessels posed during the height of the Iran-Iraq War. These tankers, previously under Kuwaiti flags, were assigned escorts of guided missile frigates and destroyers, which would be able to respond to incoming threats efficiently and effectively, ensuring the safe passage of the unarmed civilian vessels. American naval crews were all too aware of another issue they had to face while transiting these shipping lanes- subsurface naval mines, able to sink, or at the very least seriously damage, any ship that was unlucky to come into contact with one. Within a matter of minutes, the situation soured quickly. An explosion rocked the vessel, and damage-control parties kicked into high gear. Reports were relayed to the bridge, and the situation was grim. The engine room and an auxiliary machinery space had flooded, four decks were on fire, another space threatened to fill, and worst of all- the keel of the vessel was broken. The blazes were extinguished with five hours of firefighting, and the Roberts limped out of the minefield using its auxiliary thrusters, as its two main turbines were rendered inoperable after the explosion.
The Pentagon was already well-aware of what had befallen one of the Navy’s frigate fleet, and the White House was aflutter with activity. Navy divers were deployed to the mined area of the lane the Roberts was in and recovered a number armed mines, all with serial codes that matched codes on mines aboard the Iran Ajr, a seized Iranian combat ship. There was little doubt now who was to blame. US Navy assets were redirected to the region for what would be the largest and most powerful naval campaign since the Second World War, some 40-odd years before- Operation Praying Mantis.
The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was one of the American combat vessels redirected to the Persian Gulf, its air wing an invaluable resource in intelligence-gathering and air-to-surface support. On the 18th, four days after the Roberts was hit, Praying Mantis kicked off. The Enterprise, at first, contributed F-4 Phantom IIs and F-14 Tomcats with air-to-air loadouts, and E-2C Hawkeye tactical airborne early warning aircraft to the operation. A-7 Corsair IIs with air-to-ground loadouts and EA-6B Prowlers would soon join in, one carrying a Farsi linguist to eavesdrop on Iranian military radio traffic for intelligence purposes. The Tomcats would function as a screen against Iranian fighters, while the Hawkeyes would keep everyone in the battlespace up to date on any aerial movements made by the Iranians. Throughout the day, Tomcat pilots were constantly teased with fights by Iranian F-4 Phantom IIs which would attempt to enter airspace over the Persian Gulf, then retreat when Hawkeyes vectored in the Tomcats to deal with them. That was eventually put to an end, however, when during one such “teaser” incursion, a Phantom got too close to the USS Wainright, a cruiser. After two warnings, the Phantom still closed in, and the Wainright’s captain ordered the launch of a pair of surface-to-air missiles. At least one missile hit its mark, and fire control officers aboard the Wainright reported a “bloom”, proving that the missile’s warhead had exploded. Somehow, the Phantom nevertheless made it back to base at Bandar Abbas, minus one engine and with a shredded airframe. The Iranian naval commander in charge of fleet forces closest to the American vessels ordered his ships out to sea at midday, deploying two frigates and a destroyer, as well as a large number of smaller fast-attack boats and ships.
Word broke out on the Enterprise that the Iranians were putting out to sea, and pilots and naval flight officers alike high-fived and cheered in ready rooms. They were about to get into a fight that they had spent most of their Navy careers training for. The enemy surface force was steaming towards a Saudi-owned civilian oil field, with the hopes of destroying it to distract and deter American vessels. CDR Arthur “Bud” Langston and his bombardier/navigator (B/N), both of Attack Squadron 95 (VA-95) “Green Lizards”, strapped into their A-6E Intruder and were quickly hooked up to a catapult and launched, along with another A-6E functioning as their secondary. Their objective was to find two of the frigates steaming towards the oil fields. The Prowler flying the intelligence-gathering mission reported back on the enemy surface vessels’ movements, having picked up their directives and whereabouts from the radio chatter they were listening in on. Intelligence officers aboard the USS Coronado quickly determined that there would be a fast-boat attack on a secondary oil field, and this meant that stopgap actions needed to be taken while American warships could screen off the area.
Two A-6Es were brought up to the flight deck, fueled and armed with air-to-ground munitions. Their pilots, LCDR James “Jingles” Engler would be flying Lizard 503 as flight-lead, with his B/N. His wingman for this hop would be LT Paul “Jack” Webb in Lizard 507. In addition to the two Intruders, another pair of Tomcats would be launched to fly top cover, ensuring that the Intruders weren’t engaged by any enemy fighters. The ROE (rules of engagement) stipulated that neither Engler nor Webb could actually engage any vessels on the Gulf unless they were fired upon. Any other actions would have to be directly approved by Washington DC. After spotting four Iranian Boghammer fast attack boats, their request to attack was relayed back to the carrier, which in turn directed the request to National Security Advisor, Colin Powell. President Ronald Reagan quickly approved the request, after being asked by Powell, and Engler and Webb were soon notified that they were “weapons free”, meaning that they were okay to fire upon their targets.
Pushing forward on the stick and adding rudder, Engler broke away from Webb and put Lizard 503 into a dive towards the four Iranian vessels, rapidly approaching an oil platform. He vectored his Intruder towards the lead Boghammer, which was now jinking in the water- meaning that it was twisting back and forth to throw off the pilot’s aim. Engler dropped two Mark 20 Rockeye II cluster bombs, normally designed to murder the daylights out of tanks and ground-based armor. The Rockeyes missed, and Webb dove in for his attempt, but missed with a single laser-guided 500 lb munition. Engler, determined not to repeat, carefully positioned his Intruder for a visual bomb-on-target run and released three more Rockeyes. The Boghammer they hit didn’t stand a chance. The vessel was sunk immediately with all hands, while Engler and Webb pulled up and reentered a loose formation. The remaining fast attack boats turned away; mission accomplished.
A little over an hour after Engler and Webb concluded their attack, Bud Langston was still on-mission, searching for the frigates over the Strait of Hormuz. Noticing a wake on the blue seas below, Langston dove in after radioing this new development back to the carrier. Flying right behind the frigate, and flying nearly level with the superstructure of the ship, he streaked past while his B/N successfully identified the warship as being the Sahand of the Iranian navy. It was further confirmed to the aircrew of the Intruder when the ship began firing upon them. Zipping away from the vessel, the B/N armed an AGM-84 Harpoon and a few laser-guided bombs affixed to the wings of the Intruder while Langston hailed the ship over the radio, warning them to abandon their vessel since they were about to be on the receiving end of precision-guided hell. Ignoring his warnings, the Sahand remained on course, and Langston launched a Harpoon. Soon after flying off the Intruder, the rocket motor in the Harpoon went live and quickly pushed the missile past 400 miles per hour. The radar homing locked onto the warship, and within seconds, the bridge of the Sahand was obliterated. Langston, wanting to be doubly sure that the ship was disabled released a 500 lb laser-guided munition, which unlike Webb’s earlier attempt, hit its mark.
The Sahand was still, somehow, afloat after the beating it took. Another US vessel engaged it with a Harpoon of its own, putting a gaping hole in the side of the stricken frigate. Other Intruders from the Enterprise joined in, and Langston added a brace of 1000 lb bombs to the attack, further wounding the Sahand. The frigate would sink hours later, after its magazines cooked off and exploded, taking it to the bottom. Remaining crew had long since evacuated the ship and were picked up by fishing vessels nearby. Engler and Webb, our other two boat-killers, were meanwhile taking on gas from a US Air Force tanker in Omani airspace. They turned back over the Gulf with a new mission- they had to seek out and identify the Sahand’s sister ship, the Sabalan. Thanks to the heavy maritime traffic in the region, this wasn’t an easy task for both. After combing through the area, the pair finally located the frigate, and readied themselves for an attack. A streak from the deck of the Sabalan indicated that someone had fired a missile at them. Engler and Webb broke away and zoomed in. Engler took the lead, and decided against using Harpoons thanks to the background clutter on his radar picture; the computer on the missile would have potentially locked onto a different, undesired target. Once again entering a dive, he used his sole-remaining 500 lb laser-guided bomb, and hit Sabalan squarely. In fact, so accurate was his bombing run that the bomb dropped into the ship’s smokestack, right into the heart of the vessel before exploding. The Sabalan was disabled for all intents and purposes, and was taking on water fast. Webb and Engler returned to the Big E. All attacks were concluded, and aircraft were returned to the Enterprise. The Iranians took the hint and returned all forces to base, ending hostilities.
By the end of Praying Mantis, the Iranian navy lost a frigate, a gunboat, and three fast attack boats. The Sabalan was eventually put under tow before it could sink and was returned to port, where it was repaired and recommissioned into service. The Grumman A-6 Intruder had proven to be the uncontested star of the entire event, having flown a number of combat sorties and successfully attacking small, hard-to-hit enemy surface vessels with solid degrees of precision and effectiveness. The entire operation was proof of what the US Navy could do, thousands of miles away from American shores to anybody who dared attack it or the vessels it defended. In a recorded statement at the announcement of Praying Mantis, President Reagan was clear and unwavering when he said:
“We’ve taken this action to make certain the Iranians have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior … They must know that we will protect our ships … and if they threaten us, they’ll pay a price.”
The US Navy and the Intruders of VA-95 definitely made good on his word that day.