The Current Grain Shipping Blockade and the Lessons of the Tanker War
By Dr. Gary K. Busch 21/7/23
Jul 24, 2023 - 2:51:10 PM

There is a great deal of discussion about the implications of the Russian refusal to renew the safe passage of marine vessels carrying grain from Ukrainian Black Sea ports to the hungry masses of Third World countries which survive on the consumption of these grains. While in discussions with Professor Michael Ard of Johns Hopkins University he reminded me of the lessons learned in the 1970s and 1980s with the “Tanker War” in the Middle East. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) the navies of Iran and Iraq carried out blockades of shipping in and around the Gulf of Hormuz; initially concentrating on vessels carrying military supplies and later attacking ships carrying Iran's exports. Iran retaliated by attacking ships belonging to Iraq's trading partners and to countries that loaned Iraq money to support its war effort. This expanded to the bombing of both Iranian and Iraqi oil-producing facilities, reducing the flow of oil and, later the bombing of tankers which further restricted vital oil supplies. The tanker war was launched in 1984, when Iraq attacked Iran’s oil terminal and oil tankers at Kharg Island, in the northern Persian Gulf. Iran responded by striking tankers—initially from Kuwait and later from other nations—that ferried Iraqi oil. In 1987, as the tanker war threatened to disrupt global oil supplies.


In May 1981, Iraq declared that all ships going to or from Iranian ports in the northern zone of the Gulf were subject to attack. Iraq used its air power to enforce its threats, primarily Super Frelon helicopters, F-1 Mirage and MiG-23 fighters armed with Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles. Between 1981 and 1983, Iranian forces generally responded sporadically as their air force was less well-equipped than the Iraqi. But in 1984 Iraq escalated its effort, marking the second phase of the Tanker War. The arrival of French Super-Etendard combat aircraft, also armed with Exocet missiles, offered the Iraqis more range. Iran finally retaliated. Because Iran did not have many effective anti-ship cruise missiles during 1984-1986, it was forced to use creative tactics when targeting ships.[i] A partial chronology of the beginnings of the Tanker War include:

October 7, 1980: Iraq declares that Gulf Water along the Iranian coast north of 29.03N a prohibited war zone.
May 30, 1982: Atlas I, a Turkish oil tanker, becomes the first tanker to be hit during the war. While loading oil at Kharg Island, it is damaged by Iraqi bombs.
December 18, 1982: Greek tanker, Scapmount hit by an Iraqi Exocet, becomes the first tanker to become CTL in the Tanker War.
January 1984: Iraqis escalate their naval war effort and Iran responds by beginning their naval war effort.
February 14, 1985: Neptunia, a Liberian tanker, hit in the engine room by an Iraqi Exocet. The tanker sinks three days later due to an explosion, the first tanker to sink in the Tanker War.
November 1, 1986: Neutral Kuwait appeals to the international community to protect its shipping interests in the Gulf.
The war was expanded beyond just Iran and Iraq and their suppliers. On 17 May 1987, the USS Stark incident occurred, when an Iraqi jet aircraft fired two Exocet missiles at the American frigate USS Stark. A total of 37 United States Nany were killed or later died as a result of the attack, and 21 were injured.

However, the Iraq Foreign Ministry spokesman said Iraq would never intentionally attack any target in the Gulf unless it was Iranian, and laid the blame on Iran. Washington used the incident to pressure Iran, which it later blamed for the whole situation. President Ronald Reagan said, “We’ve never considered them [Iraq's military] hostile at all", and "the villain in the piece is Iran". [ii]  The Joint Chiefs of Staff investigation into the incident recommended that Iraq be held accountable. In 1987, as the tanker war threatened to disrupt global oil supplies, the Reagan Administration intervened. It began a number of concurrent initiatives:“Operation Ernest Will”.” Operation Nimble Archer”, “Operation Prime Chance”, and “Operation Praying Mantis”.

Operation Ernest Will

Operation Ernest Will (24 July 1987 – 26 September 1988) was the American military protection of Kuwait tankers from Iranian attacks. It was the largest naval convoy operation since World War II. Becoming landlocked after the Battle of al-Faw, and due to the blockade of Iraqi oil pipelines to the Mediterranean Sea by Iran's ally Syria, Iraq had to rely on its ally, Kuwait (and other Gulf Arab allies to a lesser extent) to transport its oil. After increasing attacks on Iran's main oil export facility at Kharg Island by Iraq, Iran started to attack Kuwaiti tankers carrying Iraqi oil from 13 May 1984 (and later attacking tankers from any Gulf state supporting Iraq). Attacks on ships of non-combatant nations in the Persian Gulf sharply increased thereafter, with both nations attacking oil tankers and  merchant ships of neutral nations in an effort to deprive their opponent of trade.[iii]  Kuwait turned to the superpowers, partly to protect oil exports but largely to seek an end to the war through superpower intervention. In December 1986, Kuwait's government asked the Reagan administration to send the U.S. Navy to protect Kuwaiti tankers against Iranian attacks.  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. They became, in effect, U.S. vessels.[iv] In the following 14 months, many U.S. warships took up escort duties. At one point, more than 30 warships were in the region to support the operation in addition to the tankers which sailed under the U.S. flag.

For a fuller examination of Operation Ernest Will, there is an excellent video which describes it well. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZUQiKDmhE8

Operation Prime Chance

One of the first spinoffs of the Ernest Will program resulted from a vessel under Ernest Will’s protection,  the Kuwaiti oil tanker al-Rekkah, re-flagged as the U.S. tanker MV Bridgeton and accompanied by US navy warships, striking a Iranian underwater mine some 20 miles (32 km) west of Farsi Island the  night earlier by a Pasdaran special unit, damaging the ship, but causing no injuries. In retaliation the U.S. prepared a covert program under the control of SOCOM, to suppress and destroy the Iranian efforts to attack the tankers. Special Boat Teams were deployed with six Mark III Patrol Boats and two Navy SEAL platoons. Two oil service barges, Hercules and Wimbrown VII, were converted into mobile sea bases and were established as sea bases for Prime Chance and the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) which operated MH-6 and AH-6 “Little Birds” from the Navy's command ship La Salle in the Persian Gulf. On 21 September 1987, Iran Ajr, an Iranian ship converted for use as a minelayer, was attacked. Using night-vision devices, Army gunship crews watched the Iranian vessel lay several mines, then swooped in firing miniguns and rockets. A SEAL team boarded the vessel and quickly seized it. During the attack, five Iranians were killed and 26 were captured. Several Iranian sailors were rescued from the waters of the Persian Gulf after jumping overboard during the attack. After collecting intelligence data, the SEALs and EOD scuttled the vessel the following day. In January 1988, Task Force 118 arrived with OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.[v] They captured several Iranian boats (which they scuttled) and destroyed a large number of mines.


On 16 October 1987 the Iranians launched a Silkworm missile attack on the MV Sea Isle City, a reflagged Kuwaiti oil tanker, at anchor of Kuwait. As part of Ernest Will, the U.S. prepared to retaliate in a new program, Nimble Archer. They decided to attack two platforms in the Rashadat oil field (named Rostam oil field before 1979). Having been damaged by Iraq a year earlier, the platforms were not producing oil but had been used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps for military purposes. On 19th October, the U.S. sent a warning twenty minutes before the attack, then U.S. destroyers opened fire. One platform was boarded by U.S. special forces, who recovered teletype messages and other documents, then planted explosives to destroy the platform. Air cover was provided by the cruisers USS Long Beach, USS Gridley (CG-21) and USS William H. Standley, two F-14 Tomcat fighters and an E-2 Hawkeye from USS Ranger. The high-explosive shells did negligible blast damage to the steel-lattice platforms, but eventually set them ablaze.[vi]

Operation Praying Mantis

The final part of the Ernest Will operation was Operation Praying Mantis. On 14 April 1988 the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine while deployed in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will. The explosion blew a 4.5 m (15-foot) hole in the Samuel B. Roberts's hull and nearly sank it. The crew saved their ship with no loss of life, and the Samuel B. Roberts was towed to Dubai, United Arab Emirates on 16 April. On 18 April, the U.S. Navy attacked with several groups of surface warships, plus aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, and her cruiser escort, USS Truxtun. The action began with coordinated strikes by two surface groups. One surface action group, or SAG, consisting of the destroyers USS Merrill (including embarked LAMPS Mk I helicopter detachment HSL-35 Det 1 Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light 35) and USS Lynde McCormick, plus the amphibious transport dock USS Trenton and its embarked Marine air-ground task force (Contingency MAGTF 2-88 from Camp LeJeune, NC)[5] and the LAMPS helicopter detachment (HSL-44 Det 5) from USS Samuel B. Roberts, was ordered to destroy the guns and other military facilities on the Sassan oil platform. The SAG waited 20 minutes, then opened fire. The oil platform fired back with twin-barrelled 23 mm ZU-23 guns. The SAG's guns eventually disabled some of the ZU-23s, and platform occupants radioed a request for a cease-fire. The SAG complied. After a tug carrying more personnel had cleared the area, the ships resumed exchanging fire with the remaining ZU-23s, and ultimately disabled them. Cobra helicopters completed the destruction of enemy resistance. The Marines boarded the platform and recovered a single wounded survivor (who was transported to Bahrain), some small arms, and intelligence. The Marines planted explosives, left the platform, and detonated them. The SAG was then ordered to proceed north to the Rakhsh oil platform to destroy it. The other group, which included the guided missile cruiser USS Wainwright and frigates USS Simpson and USS Bagley, attacked the Sirri oil platform. Navy SEALs were assigned to capture, occupy, and destroy the Sirri platform but because it had already been heavily damaged by naval gunfire, an assault was not required. There were several further skirmishes with Iranian small boats, but these were soon suppressed. Soon after, peace talks had begun between Iran and Iraq and, soon thereafter Operation Ernest Will was stood down.

What Are The Lessons?

The current struggle is the Russian threat to interdict conventional bulk carriers from free passage through the Black Sea. What was learned from the actions of the Tanker Wars is that it is relatively easy to reflag the vessels plying that trade in a different (however temporary) flag. In this case it isn’t necessary to use the U.S. registry for the reflagging. Any of the Black Sea littoral state can do so. It is relatively easy to reflag these grain carriers in the Bulgarian or Rumanian registries of shipping. They then have both the right of free passage in international waters as well as immunity from Turkish blockades as civilian vessels exempt from Montreux Convention interdictions. Most importantly, they are guaranteed by the protection clearly delineated in Article 6 of the NATO Constitution and the NATO commitment to collective action.

Article 6

“For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France 2, on the territory of Turkey or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.”

[i] https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/a-tanker-war-in-the-middle-eastagain
[ii] https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=8Y8bAAAAIBAJ&pg=7165,2262720
[iii] Karsh, Efraim (25 April 2002). The Iran–Iraq War: 1980–1988. Osprey Publishing
[iv] "Kuwaiti Call for Help Led to U.S. Role in Gulf". Los Angeles Times. 4 July 1988.
[v] "No Higher Honor: Photos: Capture of the Iran Ajr". Navybook.com. Retrieved 19 May 201
[vi] Roberts, Steven V. (20 October 1987). "U.S. Ships Shell Iran Installation in Gulf Reprisal". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2015.

Source: Ocnus.net 2022