Iran and the Strait of Hormuz – How easily we forget after 20 years

Iran and the Strait of Hormuz - How easily we forget after 20 years

I grew up in climates that could get hot and muggy in the summer, suffering sweltering, messy Julys and oppressive Augusts.  I was all-too familiar with that sense of staying wet all day after your shower, the towel simply incapable of keeping up with the sweat beading down along your skin as you attempt to dry from a morning wash.

That was nothing.

Looking outside, it was almost difficult to see the horizon.  The water was so smooth and silky, it blended almost seamlessly with the diffuse, heavily moistened air.  The numbers were staggering.  Water temperature – 94 degrees, air temperature – 105 degrees, radiant heat coming off the dark grey deck of the ship – 130 degrees, and the humidity … 97 percent.  At what point do you just relent and call it 100%, especially when you can just watch it gather and form colonies of water on your skin?  On my way around the weather decks I passed by a .50 caliber mount and crew on the port fantail.  They were standing guard for what we had trained for off and on since leaving our home port in Long Beach, California.  They were waiting for Iranian small boat attacks. (Our first challenge by small boats would actually come from a “friendly” nation, Oman.)

Shortly after finishing dinner, I retired down below to my bunk in the Operations Department berthing space down below in the bow of the U.S.S. David R. Ray (DD-971).  As I lay in my bunk reading Cyber Way by Alan Dean Foster, I hear the announcement over the 1MC, “Set Modified Condition 1A throughout the ship.”  We are facing one of the other threats we trained for enroute to the Persian Gulf – the Iranian Silkworm threat.  The Silkworm is a surface-to-surface missile capable of striking from moderate distances.  In this case, Iran had a missile base featuring the Silkworms that placed a good portion of the Strait of Hormuz, our passage into the Persian Gulf, within reach.

We had been under the watchful eye of Iran long before entering the Strait.  While still off the coast of Oman, an Iranian P-3 did a fly-by while out on maritime patrol.  It made me think of the many passes I received by a Soviet Bear D reconnaissance aircraft in the Sea of Japan.

It was a good thing that no one on the NTDS console or air radar consoles ever called out an incoming vampire (anti-ship cruise missile).  We were busy enough just keeping track of the regular and heavy shipping and air traffic, maintaining close watch to make sure that no one was CBDR (constant bearing, decreasing range) – on an intercept course.  Shortly after exiting the Strait and entering the Gulf, we passed by some of the “eternal flames,” Iranian oil fields still on fire some two years after they were attacked in “Operation Praying Mantis.”  I went out to the starboard forward lookout station just so I can see them for myself.  In the dark, humid night, the constant flames presented dots of eerie orange glows in the night, accented by the recognizable scent of burning oil, even miles away.  The attacks were in retaliation to damage to a U.S. Naval warship from an Iranian mine.  The unfortunate ship was the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, a guided-missile frigate.  Mines, yet another threat we had to be ready for.  We would be the eighth warship joining Joint Task Force Middle East on station in the Persian Gulf, with only one mine sweeper tasked to make sure our waters were clear.  Our training on board the ship on dealing with mines dealt with the business end; what to do for damage control after striking one.

We would routinely place ourselves in harm’s way of the Silkworm envelope in the Strait of Hormuz conducting “Earnest Will” operations.  Due to the Iranian habit of attacking Bahraini tankers transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Bahrain government asked President Reagan to provide Navy escorts.  Since it was illegal for U.S. Navy vessels to escort foreign-flagged civilian vessels, these tankers were re-registered under the U.S. flag and provided protection.  Even before Earnest Will began, the threat to shipping traffic was brought into sharp reality with the attack on the U.S.S. Stark by two Iraqi Exocet missiles. The tension caused by that incident would later produce another casualty, this time at the hands of a U.S. Naval warship when the U.S.S. Vincennes, a Ticonderoga Class Guided Missile Cruiser, shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, Iran Air Flight 655.  While the Commanding Officer of the Vincennes lost his command over the incident, it is difficult to think that any other commander would have acted differently.  While transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the Vincennes faced an air target that was not squawking its IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) as required, was not responding to radio communications, and was flying a classic attack profile.

Fortunately for me, such tensions had subsided by the time I entered the Gulf and became involved in Operation Earnest Will in the summer of 1990.  Each escort we conducted lasted about four hours; just the right amount of time to transit safely through the danger zone.  And each one passed without incident.

And all through our various missions and operations, we were just one ship for most of the time, with the rest of the Task Force spread out throughout the Gulf.  Not that we were defenseless.  We had tomahawk missiles, fired through our new Vertical Launch Array (VLA), Harpoon missiles, the new Rolling Aeroframe Missile (RAM) for surface-to-air defense, the Sea Sparrow missile (another air defense platform), two 5-inch guns, two 20mm Vulcan Phalanx guns, and our assorted .50 caliber mounts.  And, to add an extra measure of surveillance and protection, we had an SH60B Seahawk helicopter on board, capable of providing forward intelligence and a fast response to small threats.

Naval technology has come along way since the David R. Ray, who met her demise off the coast of Hawaii in 2008, sunk as part of a joint Japan-U.S. training exercise.  Given the amount of money we have been pouring into defense since my visit to the Persian Gulf in 1990, and based on my own recent trips aboard Naval warships, I know we are capable of so much more than we were twenty years ago.

I also suspect, and am rather confident, that Iran has not progressed so much.  Its economy, such as it is, cannot support much of an investment in defense.  (Well, not that ours can support it either, but that is another story.)  Nothing that I have seen suggests that Iran poses any different threat in tactics or capabilities than it did twenty years ago.  When we talk about Iran’s capabilities now, we talk about small boats, mines, and surface-to-surface missiles.  These were all things that we trained for over twenty years ago.  And all through our intensive operations in the Persian Gulf in the 1908s through the Iran-Iraq war and the 1990s during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, and even the eventual enforcement of a no-fly zone, only two U.S. Navy vessels actually received any damage – the Roberts and the Stark.  And while the U.S.S. Cole suffered damage from a small boat bomb attack in late 2000, that was instigated by Al-Qaeda, not Iran.

And through all that U.S. Naval presence in the Gulf, countless civilian vessels, including oil tankers, passed through the Strait of Hormuz safely.

Yet the media and leadership in our country seems ignorant of that history.  In all fairness, I do not have any knowledge how well the U.S. media reported on these things back in the 80s and 90s.  I was, after all, in the Navy during Operation Earnest Will and the beginnings of Operation Desert Shield.  My only media source was the Stars and Stripes, and I, with my job and security clearance, always knew more about what was going on in my theater of operations than what they could print in that wonderful paper.

Back in December, Iran started to make noise about closing the Strait of Hormuz in response to increased threats from the West to impose sanctions in response to Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons program.  Responses to that threat were slow to come in the United States, with most emphasis being on responding to the Iranian nuclear program, containing the Israeli’s assassination campaign of Iranian scientists, and responding to Iran’s responses to our threats over their imagined threat of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, oil speculators have caught on, taking advantage of the disarray and scattered approach to dealing with Iran.  From threats over the Strait of Hormuz to Israel’s provocations to our own saber rattling about imaginary weapons programs (no evidence has surfaced regarding an Iranian nuclear weapons program), there is more than enough fuel to fire the rise in oil prices at the hands of unregulated speculators.

And yet, through it all, a simple truth is lost.  Iran couldn’t close the Strait of Hormuz twenty or thirty years ago, and still could not today.  One can only hope that people with influence start to recognize that.


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