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Operation Praying Mantis was an April 18, 1988 attack by U.S. naval forces in retaliation for the Iranianmarker mining of the Persian Gulfmarker and the subsequent damage to an American warship.

On April 14, the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine while deployed in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will, the 1987-88 convoy missions in which U.S. warships escorted reflagged Kuwaitimarker oil tankers to protect them from Iranian attacks. The explosion opened a 25-foot hole in the Roberts's hull and nearly sank it. The crew saved their ship with no loss of life, and Roberts was towed to Dubaimarker on April 16.

After the mining, U.S. Navy divers recovered other mines in the area. When the serial numbers were found to match those of mines seized along with the Iran Ajr the previous September, U.S. military officials planned a retaliatory operation against Iranian targets in the Persian Gulf.

This battle was the largest of the four major U.S. surface engagements since the Second World War, which also include the Action of 2 July 1950 during the Korean War, the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War and the Action in the Gulf of Sidra in 1986. It also marked the U.S. Navy's first exchange of anti-ship missiles by ships.

The attack by the U.S. helped pressure Iran to agree to a ceasefire with Iraq later that summer, ending the eight-year conflict between the Persian Gulf neighbors.

The battle

In 1988 the Americans attacked with several groups of surface warships, plus aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise marker, and her ASW/AAW escort . The action began with coordinated strikes by two surface groups. One group, consisting of the destroyers USS Merrill marker and USS Lynde McCormick , plus the amphibious transport dock USS Trenton , neutralized the Sassan oil platform. The Iranians on the platform were given the opportunity to abandon it for a tugboat waiting alongside, but instead opened fire on Merrill, whose auto-loading 5-inch, 54-caliber guns quickly destroyed the smaller, platform-mounted Iranian gun with artillery shells. Immediately afterward, U.S. Marines from Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) 2-88 fast-roped onto the Sassan platform, gathered intelligence, and set explosive charges to render it unusable. The other group, which included a guided missile cruiser and two frigates, attacked the Sirrimarker oil platform.

Iran responded by dispatching Boghammar speedboats to attack various targets in the Persian Gulfmarker, including an American-flagged supply ship and a Panamanian-flagged ship. After these attacks, A-6E Intruder aircraft from the VA-95 "Green Lizards" were directed to the speedboats by an American frigate. The two aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Commander James Engler and Lieutenant Paul Webb, dropped Rockeye cluster bombs on the speedboats, sinking one and damaging several others, which then fled to the Iranian-controlled island of Abu Musamarker.
Action continued to escalate. The Joshan, an Iranian Combattante II Kaman-class fast attack craft, challenged USS Wainwright and Surface Action Group Charlie, firing a Harpoon missile at them. The USS Simpson responded to the challenge by firing two Standard missiles, while Wainwright followed with one Standard missile. The attacks destroyed the Iranian ship's superstructure but did not immediately sink it, so USS Bagley fired a Harpoon of its own; the missile did not find the target. The Wainwright of SAG Charlie closed on the Joshan, destroying it with its five-inch gun.

Two Iranian F-4 fighters then approached the Wainwright. One fighter left the area soon after the cruiser placed its 55B Fire Control Radar in search mode. The second fighter made a low-altitude approach towards the warship, which fired two SM-2 missiles at it. The first missile malfunctioned, but the second missile found its mark. The Wainwright was credited with downing the F-4 Phantom.

Fighting continued when the Iranian frigate IS Sahand departed Bandar Abbasmarker and challenged elements of an American surface group. The frigate was spotted by two VA-95 A-6Es while they were flying surface combat air patrol for USS Joseph Strauss .

Sahand fired missiles at the A-6Es, and the Intruders replied with two Harpoons and four laser-guided Skipper bombs. USS Joseph Strauss added a Harpoon. Most, if not all, of the U.S. weapons hit the Iranian ship.

Fires blazing on Sahand's decks eventually reached her munitions magazines, causing an explosion that sank the ship. Despite the loss of Sahand, one of Iran's most modern ships, the Iranian navy continued to fight. Late in the day, a sister ship, IS Sabalan , departed from its berth and fired a surface-to-air missile at several A-6Es from VA-95. Intruder pilot Engler dropped a laser-guided bomb on Sabalan, leaving the ship dead in the water. The Iranian frigate, stern partially submerged, was taken in tow by an Iranian tug. VA-95's aircraft, as ordered, did not continue the attack. Engler was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Admiral William J. Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for these actions against the Sabalan and the Iranian gunboats.


Marines inspect a ZU-23 23mm automatic anti-aircraft gun on the Iranian Sassan oil platform.
By the end of the operation elements of the American fleet had damaged Iranian naval and intelligence facilities on two inoperable oil platforms in the Persian Gulfmarker, and sunk at least three armed Iranian speedboats, one Iranian frigate and one fast attack gunboat. One other Iranian frigate was damaged in the battle. Sabalan was repaired in 1989 and has since been upgraded, and is still in service with the Iranian navy. In short, Iran lost one major warship and a smaller gunboat. Damage to the oil platforms was eventually repaired and they are now back in service.

The U.S. side suffered two casualties: the aircrew of a Marine Corps AH-1T Sea Cobra helicopter gunship. The Cobra, attached to the USS Trenton, was flying reconnaissance from the Wainwright and crashed sometime after dark about 15 miles southwest of Abu Musamarker island. The bodies of Capt. Stephen C. Leslie, 30, of New Bern, N.C., and Capt. Kenneth W. Hill, 33, of Thomasville, N.C., were recovered by Navy divers in May, and the wreckage of the helicopter was raised later that month. Navy officials said it showed no sign of battle damage.

The guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes was called to protect the extraction of the Roberts and arrived a month later. The heightened tensions contributed to the crew of the Vincennes shooting down a commercial airliner on a routine flight, Iran Air Flight 655marker, killing all 290 crew and passengers on July 3, less than two months after their arrival. According to the U.S. government, the Iranian Airbus was mistakenly identified as an attacking military F-14 fighter. The Iranian government, however, maintains that the Vincennes knowingly shot down a civilian aircraft.

Operation Praying Mantis is one of five American naval engagements cited by United States Naval Academymarker Prof. Craig L. Symonds in his book Decision at Sea (2005) as being decisive in establishing U.S. naval superiority. The others were the Battle of Lake Erie (1813), the Battle of Hampton Roads (1862), the Battle of Manila Baymarker (1898), and the Battle of Midwaymarker (1942).

On November 6, 2003 the International Court of Justicemarker dismissed Iran's claim for reparation against the United States for breach of the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the two countries. The court also dismissed a counterclaim by the United States, also for reparation for breach of the same treaty. As part of its finding the court did note that "the actions of the United States of America against Iranian oil platforms on October 19, 1987 (Operation Nimble Archermarker) and April 18, 1988 (Operation Praying Mantis) cannot be justified as measures necessary to protect the essential security interests of the United States of America."

U.S. naval order of battle

Surface Action Group Bravo

Surface Action Group Charlie

Surface Action Group Delta

Air support


  1. , p. 217.
  3. "Will Block Oil Traffic if Its Tankers Are Stopped: Iran;" Los Angeles Times Los Angeles, Calif.: May 18, 1988. pg. 7
  4. International Court of Justice. Oil Platforms (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America). Accessed December 12, 2006.
  5. Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute 66 (May 1989) © 1989 United States Naval Institute The Surface View: Operation Praying Mantis By Captain J. B. Perkins III, U.S. Navy, accessed via, 17 July 2008

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