Earnest Will and Prime Chance (July 1987-August 1989)
Near the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) when Iran began using naval mines and Silkworm missiles to endanger oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, the United States offered to do what it could to keep the oil moving. In December 1986, concerned that it could not protect its ships, the government of Kuwait approached the United States about registering 11 of the Kuwait Oil Tanker Company’s oil and gas tankers under the American flag. In March 1987, the U.S. government agreed to this transfer, and in July 1987 initiated Operation EARNEST WILL to provide a naval escort to tankers passing through those dangerous waters.
On 24 July, when the Bridgeton, the first oil tanker escorted by US Navy ships, struck a mine near the end of its return through the Persian Gulf, it was apparent that the mere presence of U.S. Navy ships would not be enough to safeguard the tankers. It would be necessary to call on SOF boat units, helicopters, and Navy SEALs to provide surveillance and patrols. Within two weeks, MH/AH-6 helicopters from the 160th were on station, along with patrol craft and SEAL platoons from the Naval Special Warfare Command.
Initial 160th assets, designated Detachment 160 Aviation Group (DET 160 AVGP) for Operation EARNEST WILL, consisted of two MH-6s, four AH-6s, and personnel, including pilots, crews, and maintenance personnel. The MH/AH-6 helicopters had many characteristics that made them remarkably suited to the operation. Small helicopters that could fly at 120 knots with a radius of 100 nautical miles, they were difficult to detect on radar and relatively quiet running. In addition, the two pilots assigned to each aircraft were proficient at flying with night vision goggles. The MH-6 was equipped with forward looking infrared radar (FLIR) with a videotape system particularly suited to serve the flight lead to detect, identify, and vector AH-6 gunships to targets. The AH-6 gunships also were armed with 7.62 miniguns and 2.75-inch rockets.
On 5 August 1987, the unit reported to the command ship USS La Salle (AFG-3) on station and, on 8 August, the unit accompanied the USS La Salle on an escort mission. For the operation, DET 160 AVGP was divided into two self-sustaining teams. Each team used the call sign SEABAT and consisted of one MH-6, two AH-6s, crew, and maintenance personnel. Later that day, the first SEABAT team was transferred to the USS Klakring (FFG-42) and ordered to protect minesweeping tugboats operating west of Farsi Island where the channel narrows. It remained on station until the convoy passed through the area on its return south from Kuwait. On 9 August, the second SEABAT team transferred to the USS Jarrett (FFG-33) to accompany the convoy on the return to the Gulf of Oman.
Initial tactics called for the MH/AH-6s to fly nightly patrol missions over the gulf in tight formations waiting for U.S. Navy Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopters to vector them to contacts. It was soon determined that in order to preserve the crews and equipment, the MH/AH-6s should remain on the ship’s deck until a LAMPS requested verification of a contact.
It was later decided that mobile sea bases (MSB) would be more suitable for special operations forces. As a result, two oil servicing barges were leased from a civilian firm: the Hercules, a derrick barge used for constructing oil platforms, 400 feet long and 150 feet wide with a draft of 15 feet; and the Wimbrown VII, a jack-up barge, 250 feet long and 80 feet wide with a draft of 13 feet. The Hercules also had an elevated 65-foot by 75-foot helicopter landing pad and could accommodate 161 men. Although the Wimbrown VII had an elevated 50-foot by 50-foot helicopter landing pad, it was smaller and could not fit the SEABAT team and all the patrol and minesweeping craft on board. It could, however, accommodate 256 men. The president of Kuwait Oil Tanker Company, encouraged by the Kuwaiti oil minister, agreed to lease the barges, and on 5 September 1987, contracts were issued to modify the barges and provide them for special operations use along the convoy route in the vicinity of Farsi Island.
On 21 September 1987, the Iran AJR, an Iranian Navy roll-on roll-off cargo ship modified for mine laying, sailed from Bandar Abbas intent on mining the convoy route off the northern coast of Qatar. At 2200 hours, the captain of the USS Jarrett, alerted to possible mining activity, launched his SEABAT team (an MH-6 and two AH-6s) to search for the Iran AJR. It was an excellent night for helicopter surveillance. There was a 5,000-foot ceiling with scattered clouds, visibility of one to two nautical miles, and zero percent moon illumination. Within 40 minutes, the SEABAT team had spotted the Iran AJR. After the MH-6 had moved to within 200 meters without being observed by the ship, the SEABAT team was ordered to pull back and observe the ship from afar. The helicopter stayed within one nautical mile of the ship. At 2250 hours, the Iran AJR extinguished its lights and reversed course. The MH-6 moved in and observed six crew members remove the tarpaulin on center of the deck, revealing cylindrical-shaped objects with flat bottoms and rounded tops. When the MH-6 radioed the Jarrett that he had observed three crewmembers push one of these “mine-like” objects over the side, the SEABAT team was ordered to take the ship under fire.
The MH-6 moved away and the first AH-6 moved in. At 600 to 700 meters, it strafed the deck of the Iran AJR with the minigun to clear personnel away from the mines and machine guns, and at 200 meters it fired two 2.75-inch high-explosive rockets into the stern of the ship. Then the first AH-6 broke off, and the second AH-6 raked the deck and bridge with minigun fire and shot two rockets at the stern, causing a secondary explosion in a paint locker. When this AH-6 broke off, the first AH-6 came back around and launched its last 2.75-inch high-explosive rocket, striking the pilothouse with two flechette rockets. Before the other AH-6 could make another pass, the SEABAT team was ordered to cease-fire.
While the first AH-6 returned to the Jarrett for refueling, the MH-6 remained to observe, covered by the other AH-6. On the Jarrett the first AH-6 was serviced, and a back-up pilot replaced the pilot for the return to the Iran AJR. The MH-6 observed 10 to 15 Iranians standing near the bow of the ship and 16 mines arranged in three rows on the main deck. When the SEABAT team reported that personnel were moving from the bow of the ship back to the suspected mines, the AH-6 on station was given permission to use whatever means necessary to prevent further mining. It fired a rocket at the stern, sprayed the deck with minigun fire, and expended its remaining flechette on the deck. Out of ammunition, it returned to the Jarrett and was replaced by the other AH-6 inbound from the Jarrett. This AH-6 engaged the ship with 500 to 800 rounds of minigun fire and fired two rockets into the bridge before it was ordered to cease-fire. Although the Iran AJR had not issued a distress signal nor responded to calls on the maritime radio, the SEABAT team could see that the ship was damaged and dead in the water. Most of the crew had abandoned ship, but two crewmembers remained near the ship’s bow. The MH-6 returned to the Jarrett for servicing and the two AH-6s remained on station. The SEABAT team remained on station until U.S. Marine helicopters relieved them shortly before dawn. Then they returned to the Jarrett to wash and stow their helicopters. The DET 160 AVGP maintenance crew on the Jarrett had worked through the night without relief, rearming and refueling the SEABAT helicopters.
Another incident occurred on the evening of 8 October 1987, when LAMPS flying in the vicinity of Middle Shoals Buoy detected a target and directed the SEABAT team to investigate. At first the target appeared to be friendly patrol boats known to be operating in the area, but the image in the FLIR box revealed a Revolutionary Guard Corps Boghammar and two Boston whaler boats. The MH-6 went in to investigate, and as it made its turn received machinegun fire from the Boghammar. The first AH-6 moved in to engage, firing flechette rockets to suppress the personnel on the boats’ decks followed by high-explosive rocket and minigun fire. This attack broke one of the Boston whaler boats in half and started fires on both of the whaler boats. To cover the first AH-6 on its outbound leg, the second AH-6 engaged the Boghammar and the remaining Boston whaler with minigun fire and fired high-explosive rockets. One of the rockets hit the whaler boat, causing a second fire. When the first AH-6 finished its attack run, the second attacked the Boghammar with its minigun and a high-explosive rocket. On this pass the Boghammar launched two rockets, later revealed to be STINGER missiles, in the direction of the AH-6. The Boghammar maneuvered, using the smoke from the burning whaler boats to shield it. In response, the AH-6s changed their tactics. The first helicopter remained on one side of the fire while the other AH-6 went around to the other side to meet the Boghammar when it came around. After the first AH-6 had expended its ammunition, the MH-6 made a run, firing its recently acquired minigun at the Boghammar. The second AH-6, which had one high-explosive rocket and some 7.62 ammunition left, was directed by the other AH-6 to get closer to the Boghammar and to fire its last high-explosive rocket. The rocket sank the Boghammar.
In November 1987, two 160th Blackhawk helicopters with four pilots, two crew chiefs, and six maintenance personnel were deployed to the Persian Gulf to enhance combat search and rescue (CSAR) capabilities. The Blackhawks, equipped with FLIR and armed with miniguns, required only minor modifications: the addition of a tactical air navigation (TACAN) system, installation of an underwater beacon system (in case the Blackhawk went down in the water), and gray paint to match Navy colors, thus being dubbed as “Grayhawks.” The Blackhawks were first assigned to the Hercules. (They were not able to land on the Wimbrown VII, until the landing pad was expanded and strengthened in March 1988.) Mission commanders originally intended that the Blackhawks would go out with each of the SEABAT patrols, but this schedule put too many flying hours on the Blackhawks. Therefore, they remained on the barge on five-minute alert during SEABAT patrols. In addition, the Blackhawks were made available for an increasing number of administrative support missions. These assignments taxed the equipment and the morale of the crews.
In addition to CSAR and logistics flights, the Blackhawks also provided nighttime casualty evacuations. This service was critical on December 1987, when an accident aboard the
Wimbrown VII seriously injured Sergeant James D. Potter, a 160th maintenance sergeant. As Sergeant Potter walked under the rotor blades of an AH-6 after picking up individual weapons from the pilots, a gust of wind caught the blade pushing it down far enough to strike him in the head, breaking his neck and splitting his head open. SEABAT and SEAL personnel stabilized his injury and put him on a Blackhawk for medical evacuation to Bahrain and further evacuation to the United States. The rapid evacuation by the Blackhawk helicopter very likely saved his life.
DET 160 AVGP suffered its only helicopter loss near the end of its Persian Gulf assignment. On 24 June 1988, as a flight of one MH-6 and two AH-6s was patrolling the northern Persian Gulf, one of the AH-6s experienced engine failure. Unable to make it to the nearest land, a Saudi Arabian island manned by coast guard personnel 12 to 13 nautical miles away, the helicopter plunged into the water. The crew was able to swim clear of the helicopter before it sank, and the other AH-6 threw them a ladder and flew them to the Saudi Arabian island on the ladder. A Blackhawk was immediately scrambled from the Hercules to pick up the two crewmembers from the island. While the Blackhawk was en route, Iranian forces on the island were searching for the two crewmembers. The Blackhawk landed quickly and picked up the crewmembers before Iranian forces could get to them. (The AH-6 was recovered from the water five days later.)
In early 1988, it was decided that Army OH-58D (AHIP) helicopters from the 118th Aviation Battalion would be phased in to replace the SEABAT teams. On 24 February 1988, two AHIP helicopters reported to the Wimbrown VII, and the SEABAT team stationed on the barge returned to the United States. For the next few months, the AHIP helicopters on the Wimbrown VII shared patrol duties with the SEABAT team on the Hercules. Coordination was difficult, but despite frequent requests from TF-160, the SEABAT team on the Hercules was not replaced by an AHIP detachment until June 1988. The Blackhawks remained in the gulf until transportation was available to return them to the United States in July and August 1989.
160th helicopters performed very well in the Persian Gulf. Neither the MH/AH-6s nor the Blackhawks had major maintenance problems, although the Blackhawks did suffer corrosion damage. At the time that the AHIPs replaced the SEABAT teams, the MH-6s and AH-6s had logged 1,300 and 2,100 flight hours respectively, and, through 15 January 1989, the Blackhawks had flown 2,306 hours. Nevertheless, the availability rate of the MH/AH-6s was 97 percent and that of the Blackhawks was 94 percent. The presence of DET 160 AVGP deterred numerous attacks on international shipping and slowed the mine-laying process. Once again the 160th proved to be a decisive weapon, one that had international implications.
My cousin just finished a visit to the U.S. and her husband was a Captain
in the Merchant Marine who was involved in transporting oil during this
period. He recounted to me the absolute terror of seeing a sister ship attacked
and set afire and what a relief to have the armed escorts.