Operation Earnest Will

Operation Earnest Will

Operation Earnest Will
Part of the Iran–Iraq War
Mess Management Specialist 2nd Class Williams Hendrickson scans for mines from the bow of the U.S. Navy guided missile frigate USS Nicholas during an Earnest Will convoy mission.
Date 24 July 1987 – 26 September 1988
Location Persian Gulf
United States United States Navy Iran Iranian Navy
1 aircraft carrier,
1 amphibious transport dock
4 destroyers
1 guided missile cruiser
3 frigates
4 frigates
4 corvettes
Several minelayers
Several missile craft

Operation Earnest Will (24 July 1987 – 26 September 1988) was the U.S. military protection of Kuwaiti owned tankers from Iranian attacks in 1987 and 1988, three years into the Tanker War phase of the Iran–Iraq War.[1] It was the largest naval convoy operation since World War II.

The U.S. Navy warships that escorted the tankers, part of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, were the most visible part of the operation, but U.S. Air Force AWACS radar planes provided surveillance and Army special operations helicopters hunted for possible attackers.

Other U.S Navy vessels participated in Operation Ernest Will. They were then under the command of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet which had primary responsibility for combat operations in the Persian Gulf region. The numerous ships used in Operation Ernest Will mostly consisted of Battleship Battle Groups, Carrier Battle Groups, Surface Action Groups and ships from the Pacific's Third and Seventh fleets and the Mediterranean-based Sixth fleet. They generally operated in and near the Gulf for parts of their normal six-month deployments.

This was the USSOCOM's first tactical operation involving SEALs, Special Boat Teams (SBT), and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) ("Nightstalkers") aviators working together.


In December 1986, the government of Kuwait asked the Reagan administration to send the U.S. Navy to protect Kuwaiti tankers against Iranian attacks.[2] U.S. law forbade the use of Navy ships to escort civilian vessels under a foreign flag, so the Kuwaiti ships were re-registered under the U.S. flag. Even before Earnest Will formally began, it became clear how dangerous Persian Gulf operations would be. On 17 May, an Iraqi F-1 Mirage fired two Exocet missiles at the guided missile frigate USS Stark, killing 37 sailors and injuring 21. Iraqi officials said the targeting of the U.S. warship was accidental.[1][3][4][5]


Earnest Will Begins

The USS Crommelin (FFG-37), USS Copeland (FFG-25), USS Kidd (DDG-993), and USS Fox (CG-33) were the first U.S. Navy ships assigned to escort the Kuwaiti oil tankers. On the very first escort mission, on 24 July 1987, the Kuwaiti oil tanker al-Rekkah, re-flagged as the U.S. tanker Bridgeton, struck an Iranian mine damaging the ship, but causing no injuries. The Bridgeton proceeded under her own power to Kuwait, with the thin-skinned U.S. Navy escorts following behind to avoid mines.[1]

Operation Prime Chance

MH-60 landing on Hercules

Earnest Will overlapped with Operation Prime Chance, a largely secret effort to stop Iranian forces from attacking Persian Gulf shipping.

Despite the protection offered by U.S. naval vessels, Iran used mines and small boats to harass the convoys steaming to and from Kuwait, at the time a principal ally of Iraq. In late July 1987, Rear Admiral Harold J. Bernsen, commander of the Middle East Force, requested Naval Special Warfare assets. Special Boat Teams deployed with six Mark III Patrol Boats and two SEAL platoons in August.[6] The Middle East Force decided to convert two oil servicing barges, Hercules and Wimbrown VII, into mobile sea bases. These were moored in the northern Persian Gulf, allowing special operations forces to thwart clandestine Iranian mining and small boat attacks. On 21 September, Nightstalkers flying MH-6 and AH-6 Little Birds took off from the frigate USS Jarrett to track an Iranian ship, the Iran Ajr. The Nightstalkers watched the Iran Ajr turn off its lights and begin laying mines. After receiving permission to attack, the helicopters fired guns and rockets, stopping the ship. The Iran Ajr’s crew continued to push mines over the side, and the helicopters resumed firing until the crew abandoned ship. At first light, a SEAL team, assisted by Special Boat Teams, boarded the vessel and discovered nine mines on the vessel’s deck, as well as a logbook revealing areas where previous mines had been laid. EOD technicians from EOD Mobile Unit 5 scuttled the vessel the following day.[citation needed] The logbook implicated Iran in mining international waters.[6] Within a few days, the Special Operations forces had determined the Iranian pattern of activity: the Iranians hid during the day near oil and gas platforms in Iranian waters and at night they headed toward the Middle Shoals Buoy, a navigation aid for tankers. With this knowledge, special operations forces launched three Little Bird helicopters and two patrol craft to the buoy. The Little Bird helicopters arrived first and were fired upon by three Iranian boats anchored near the buoy. After a short but intense firefight, the helicopters sank all three boats. Because of Earnest Will operational requirements, USSOCOM would acquire new weapons systems: the patrol coastal ships and the Mark V Special Operations Craft.[6]

Operation Nimble Archer

One of two Iranian oil platforms set ablaze after shelling by American destroyers.

On 15 October, the reflagged U.S. tanker Sea Isle City was struck by an Iranian Silkworm missile while at anchor near the oil terminal outside Kuwait City. Seventeen crewmen and the American captain were injured in the missile attack.[1][6] On 18 Oct., the U.S. Navy responded with Operation Nimble Archer. Four destroyers shelled two oil platforms in the Rostam oil field. After the shelling, a SEAL platoon and a demolition unit planted explosives on one of the platforms to destroy it. The SEALs next boarded and searched a third platform two miles away. Documents and radios were taken for intelligence.

Operation Praying Mantis

On 14 April 1988, 65 miles east of Bahrain, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) hit a mine, blowing an immense hole in its hull.[7] Ten sailors were injured. The U.S. retaliated fiercely. On 18 April, U.S. forces launched Operation Praying Mantis, attacking the Iranian frigate Sabalan and oil platforms in the Sirri and Sassan oil fields.[1][7] After U.S. warships bombarded the Sirri platform and set it ablaze, a UH-60 with a SEAL platoon flew toward the platform but was unable to get close enough because of the roaring fire. Secondary explosions soon wrecked the platform.[6]


Thereafter, Iranian attacks on neutral ships dropped drastically. On 3 July 1988, USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, an Airbus A300B2, over the Strait of Hormuz after mistaking it for an Iranian F-14. The attack resulted in the deaths of 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children.

The two side effects of Earnest Will – Praying Mantis and the downing of the airliner – helped convince Iran to agree to a ceasefire on 18 July and a permanent end to hostilities on 20 August 1988, ending its eight-year war with Iraq. On 26 September 1988, USS Vandegrift escorted the last tanker of the operation to Kuwait. The remaining SEALs, patrol boats, and helicopters then returned to the United States.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e Stephen Andrew Kelley (June 2007) (PDF). Better Lucky Than Good: Operation Earnest Will as Gunboat Diplomacy. Naval Postgraduate School. http://www.nps.edu/Academics/Centers/CCC/Research/StudentTheses/kelley07.pdf. Retrieved 9 November 2007. 
  2. ^ “Kuwaiti Call for Help Led to U.S. Role in Gulf,” Los Angeles Times, 4 July 1988.
  3. ^ http://www.jag.navy.mil/library/investigations/USS%20STARK%20BASIC.pdf
  4. ^ Desert Storm at sea: what the Navy really did by Marvin Pokrant, P 43.
  5. ^ Formal Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Attack of the USS Stark in 1987
  6. ^ a b c d e f http://www.socom.mil/Docs/Command_History_26Feb07webversion.pdf
  7. ^ a b Peniston, Bradley (July 2006). No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf. United States Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1591146615. 

Further reading

  • Huchthausen, Peter (2004). America's Splendid Little Wars: A Short History of U.S. Engagements from the Fall of Saigon to Baghdad. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-200465-0. 
  • Levinson, Jeffrey L.; Edwards, Randy L. (1997). Missile Inbound. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-517-9.  (about the Stark attack)
  • Palmer, Michael (2003). On Course to Desert Storm. University Press of the Pacific. ISBN 1-4102-0495-2.  (U.S. Navy operations in the Gulf)
  • Peniston, Bradley (2006). No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-661-5. http://www.navybook.com/nohigherhonor.  (Detailed look at guided missile frigate's operations and mine attack)
  • Sweetman, Jack (1998). Great American Naval Battles. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-794-5.  (Account of Operation Praying Mantis)
  • Symonds, Craig L. (2005). Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517145-4.  (Puts Operation Praying Mantis in broader historical context)
  • Wise, Harold Lee (2007). Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf 1987–88. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-970-3. http://www.insidethedangerzone.com. 

External links

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