Operation Earnest Will

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Operation Earnest Will
Part of the Iran–Iraq War
Earnest Will map.png
Operation Earnest Will convoy route
Date 24 July 1987 – 26 September 1988
Location Persian Gulf
United States United States Iran Iran
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 American 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 operations' most visible part, but U.S. Air Force AWACS radar planes provided surveillance and U.S. Army special operations helicopters hunted for possible attackers.

Other U.S. Navy vessels participated in Operation Earnest Will. They were then under the command of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet which had primary responsibility for combat operations in the Persian Gulf region. The numerous ships used in Operation Earnest 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 USSOCOM's first tactical operation involving Navy SEALs, Special Boat Units, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) ("Nightstalkers") aviators working together.


In December 1986, Kuwait's government 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 1987, 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[edit]

The USS Crommelin, USS Fox, and USS Kidd were the first U.S. Navy ships assigned to escort the Kuwaiti oil tankers.[6] 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]

In the following 14 months, other U.S. warships took up escort duties, including USS "Semmes",

USS England, USS Klakring, USS Thach, USS Reuben James, USS Gallery, USS Copeland USS Tisdale(FFG27), USS Nicholas, USS Elrod, USS Carr, USS Midway, USS Forrestal, USS Ford, USS Missouri, USS William H. Standley, USS Ranger, USS Constellation, USS Iowa and USS Ticonderoga. The combined battle group/surface action group of the Ranger and the Missouri in 1987 included USNS Hassayampa, USS Leftwich, USS Hoel; USS Kansas City, USS Bunker Hill, USS Horne, USS Robert E. Peary; USS Long Beach, USS Wichita, USS Gridley, USS Curts; USS Shasta, USS John Young, USS Richmond K Turner, USS Francis Hammond, and USS Buchanan.[7]

Operation Prime Chance[edit]

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. Navy 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 Navy SEAL platoons in August.[8] The Middle East Force decided to convert two oil service 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 aircraft 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. The USS Hawes towed the mine layer (a converted tank landing craft) to the Iranian, Iraqi war zone. EOD technicians from EOD Mobile Unit 5 scuttled the vessel the following day.[citation needed] The logbook implicated Iran in mining international waters.[8] Within a few days, the special operations forces had determined the Iranian pattern of activity: hide during the day near oil and gas platforms in Iranian waters and at night, head toward the Middle Shoals Buoy, a navigation aid for tankers. With this knowledge, the special operations forces launched three Little Bird aircraft and two patrol craft to the buoy. The aircraft arrived first and were fired upon by three Iranian boats anchored near the buoy. In a short but intense firefight, the aircraft sank all three boats.

Lessons from Earnest Will later led USSOCOM to acquire the patrol coastal ships and the Mark V Special Operations Craft.[8]

Operation Nimble Archer[edit]

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. 17 crewmen and the American captain were injured in the attack.[1][8] On 18 October, the U.S. Navy responded with Operation Nimble Archer. Four destroyers shelled two oil platforms in the Rostam oil field. After the shelling, USS Thach (FFG-43) landed a SEAL platoon and a demolition unit that 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[edit]

On 14 April 1988, 65 miles east of Bahrain, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine, blowing an immense hole in its hull.[9] 10 sailors were injured. The U.S. retaliated fiercely. On 18 April, U.S. forces launched Operation Praying Mantis, attacking the Iranian frigates Sabalan and Sahand and oil platforms in the Sirri and Sassan oil fields.[1][9] 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.[8]


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

The two side effects of Earnest Will – Praying Mantis and the airliner's downing – 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 operation's last tanker to Kuwait. The remaining SEALs, patrol boats, and helicopters then returned to the U.S.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e Stephen Andrew Kelley (June 2007). "Better Lucky Than Good: Operation Earnest Will as Gunboat Diplomacy" (PDF). Naval Postgraduate School. 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. ^ "Mine Blast Turns A Calm Gulf Cruise Chaotic". Chicago Tribune. 25 July 1987. 
  7. ^ http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/navy/batgru-nomenclature.htm
  8. ^ a b c d e f http://www.socom.mil/Docs/Command_History_26Feb07webversion.pdf
  9. ^ 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 1-59114-661-5. 

Further reading[edit]

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