By 1987, two of the most powerful nations in the Persian Gulf had been slugging it out for seven years in the costly stalemate known as the Iran-Iraq War. The escalation of attacks on neutral merchant shipping by both sides, referred to as the “Tanker War,” caused the United States to initiate Operation Earnest Will in July 1987. Initially designed to protect Kuwaiti tankers re-flagged as American ships, Earnest Will would also be the first combat test of the new U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), formed just three months earlier on April 16, 1987. Created in response to congressional action in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 1987, USSOCOM united all of the services’ special operations components under a dedicated command equal to that of the other services. It was an independence long advocated by special operations forces (SOF), and in Operations Prime Chance and Praying Mantis, part of Earnest Will, they would make an important first step in validating that decision.
To the uninitiated, the Persian Gulf appears to be an open, if somewhat narrow, body of water. The reality, so far as commercial oil tankers and blue-water navies are concerned, is that the Gulf more resembles a narrow valley in a long canyon dotted with numerous looming promontories. The combination of shallow depth with numerous islands, shoals, and oil platforms restricts deep-draft traffic to a few well-charted passages. With Iran bordering the entire eastern side of the Gulf from the Strait of Hormuz to Iraq, the result is a shooting gallery-style gauntlet more than 600 miles long from which Iran could stage attacks. As such, Rear Adm. Harold J. Bernsen, commander of Middle East Force at the time, quickly discovered that as a combat environment, the Persian Gulf gives the advantage to unconventional warfare tactics. So while Earnest Will, the escort of tankers by conventional warships, would be the high-profile – which is to say, highly publicized – side of the mission, the actual work interdicting Iranian attacks would be conducted covertly in Operation Prime Chance – making it, fittingly, the secret debut of USSOCOM.
“In my view, to be successful in the northern Gulf we must establish intensive patrol operations to prevent the Iranians from laying mines.”
Prime Chance’s primary adversary was Iran’s littoral fleet of small boats, mostly Swedish-built Boghammers and Boston whaler-type craft, used by the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) to attack commercial shipping or lay mines, and Iranian oil platforms used as observation posts. The Pasdaran’s favored tactic for attacking ships was to swarm around a target and shoot at the vessel’s bridge and superstructure with 107 mm rockets, RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and machine guns. The intent was not so much to sink as to inflict as much damage as possible on the ship and crew.
Prime Chance was a joint special operations and conventional force operation utilizing personnel from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) – the 160th SOAR, or “Night Stalkers” – SEALs, Special Boat Units, Marines, and the Navy. Prime Chance began with missions launched from Bernsen’s flagship, the command ship USS La Salle (AGF 3), and frigates USS Jarrett (FFG 33) and Klakring (FFG 42). Additional missions were planned to be staged from two large oil platform construction barges – the Hercules and the Wimbrown VII – located in Bahrain that were being converted into mobile sea bases (MSBs). Once operational, they would then be deployed in international waters near Iran’s Farsi Island in the northern Gulf. The conversion of the barges, and especially their deployed location, sparked a bureaucratic firestorm among traditionalists in the Pentagon opposed to the mobile sea base concept. Joint Chiefs of Staff critics of the plan claimed the MSBs would be irresistible targets dangerously vulnerable to air attack. With memories of the 1983 truck bomb attack on Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, still fresh, some went so far as to call the barges “Beirut Barracks.”
Every operational aspect of the barges – from arms and ordnance storage and types, numbers, and placement of patrol craft and helicopters to pilot flight certifications, Navy health inspections of the barges’ food service areas, and more – was examined and argued by the Joint Chiefs.
“Would you rather risk losing two oil barges or a billion-dollar ship?”
Bernsen countered that Iranian air capability against the barges was a non-issue – Iran had only 20 operable F-4 Phantoms and few Harpoons. U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. George B. Crist, USMC, threw in an additional challenge: “Would you rather risk losing two oil barges or a billion-dollar ship?” This was a stinging reference to the Feb. 28, 1987, missile attack “by mistake” of Iraqi fighters on the frigate USS Stark (FFG 31) that killed 37 sailors, and a reminder that the northern Gulf was dangerous to high-value assets as well. On Sept. 17, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., inspected the Hercules. While acknowledging the risk, Crowe decided using the barges as MSBs in the northern Gulf was the best way to go. With that, opposition ended. The Mk. III patrol boats conducted presence patrols, escorted convoys, and carried out intelligence missions beginning Sept. 9.