Military

 


Mobile Sea Base Hercules In The Northern

Persian Gulf: Beirut Barracks II?

 

CSC 1995

 

SUBJECT AREA Warfighting

 

 

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

 

Title: Mobile Sea Base Hercules in the Northern Persian

Gulf: Beirut Barracks II?

 

Author: Commander Peter I. Wikul, United States Navy

Thesis: Because U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) did not

apply the lessons learned from the Beirut Barracks bombing

on 23 October l983 to the planning and deployment of Mobile

Sea Base (MSB) Hercules to the northern Persian Gulf, U.S.

forces almost suffered another Beirut tragedy.

 

Background: The United States military takes great pains to

write, catalog, and disseminate lessons learned to improve

doctrine. An analysis of the planning and manner in which

MSB Hercules was deployed to the northern Persian Gulf is

cause for concern. It makes one wonder if anyone seriously

reads, studies and applies lessons learned. The Long

Commission identified problems and recommended solutions to

preclude another Beirut tragedy, but CENTCOM appears not to

have provided sufficient command oversight to Commander,

Middle East Force prior to their deploying MSB Hercules near

Farsi Island without adequate protection. A little over

two weeks later, the Iranians launched an attack. The

Iranians lost. Because America won a decisive victory on

the night of 8 October l987, serious problems went

unnoticed.

 

Recommendation: All military planners should thoroughly

review lessons learned to avoid repeating tragic mistakes.

This is especially true for those planners at the

operational level who are tasked to provide command and

oversight to the tactical forces.


MOBILE SEA BASE HERCULES IN THE NORTHERN PERSIAN GULF:

 

BEIRUT BARRACKS II?

 

 

 

Early Sunday morning 23 October l983 a fanatic

Lebanese militiaman from Hezbollah drove a truck laden with

the equivalent of l2,OOO pounds of explosives into the U.S.

Marine Corps Battalion Landing Team (BLT) Headquarters

Barracks at Beirut Airport. The fanatic perished the

instant he detonated the bomb, killing 24l American

servicemen and wounding 7O.1 The Hezbollah succeeded in

their mission.

Five years later on the night of 8 October l987,

fanatics from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)

mounted an attack against a secret U.S. mobile sea base

(MSB) approximately 25 miles west of Farsi Island.2 This

time the Americans exacted a harsh toll on the Iranians.

U.S. forces sank three boats, probably killed fourteen IRGC

personnel, and captured four survivors.3 By contrast, there

were no U.S. casualties. The IRGC mission failed.

My thesis contends that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)

failed to apply the Beirut bombing lessons learned, as

documented in the Long Commission Report,4 the planning

and deployment of Mobile Sea Base Hercules to the northern

Persian Gulf. In support of my thesis I contrast specific

Report recommendations with CENTCOM's employment of MSBs

 

during the initial phase of Operation ERNEST WILL, where

there was potential for another Beirut Barracks disaster. A

discussion of the strategic imperatives, operational

considerations and tactical employment of MSB Hercules will

precede my analysis. Because the facts concerning the

incident of 8 October l987 often have been reported

erroneously for lack of accurate information both in the

press and by historians, I provide a correct historical

account of this incident. Finally, I deliberate the impact

of applying lessons learned to future operations.

On the surface, both incidents are seemingly disparate

events. The Beirut bombing is the worst disaster for U.S.

military forces in recent history. By contrast, history has

recorded the combat action on 8 October l983 as a decisive

victory for the U.S. military.5 However, two common

threads tie both incidents together. First, the U.S.

military underestimated the Muslim fundamentalist militants'

capability to assess a critical vulnerability within the

U.S. operational theater; and they further underestimated

their ability to follow through with their assessment by

planning and executing an operation designed specifically to

thwart U.S. strategy. Second, we underestimated their moral

will to attack superior U.S. forces.

 

 

THE STRATEGIC LEVEL

 

Operation ERNEST WILL has its roots in the Iran-Iraq

war. The war escalated into an economic war of targeting

oil tankers. By spring of l987 the Tanker War claimed 325

ships.6 "Kuwait--seeing its oil exports seriously

imperiled by Iranian attacks on its tankers transiting the

Gulf--sought protection for them."7

A small nation without military credibility to deter

attacks against its oil tanker fleet, Kuwait made appeals

for help to both the Soviet Union and the U.S. It was only

after the Soviets responded that the U.S. followed suit.8

The Soviets leased to Kuwait three oil tankers which would

sail under the Soviet flag and be protected by its navy.9

The U.S. approach was different. While in the Arabian Sea

and Persian Gulf, Kuwaiti oil tankers would sail under the

American flag (called reflagging) in convoy with U.S.

warships.

Two other events would further hasten U.S. involvement

in the Persian Gulf. On l7 May l987, two Iraqi missiles

fired in error by one of its jet fighters accidentally hit

the frigate USS Stark. Then, on the very first ERNEST WILL

escort mission, the reflagged tanker Bridgeton hit a mine

near Farsi Island while U.S. warships escorted it. It was

probably sheer luck which kept one of the warships escorting

the Bridgeton from the same fate.10 Although the U.S.

could not prove it, the mine that the Bridgeton hit was most

likely Iranian. Seeding mines and attacking commercial

shipping with impunity, Iran seemed to have free rein in the

northern Persian Gulf and was threatening U.S. policy

objectives.

 

THE OPERATIONAL LEVEL

 

As the combatant commander for the Persian Gulf region,

U.S. Commander-in-Chief Central Command (USCINCCENT) had the

responsibility to counter the Iranian threat. USCINCCENT

tasked Commander, Middle East Force (COMIDEASTFOR)11 to

devise a solution to ensure the safe passage of ERNEST WILL

convoys. After the Bridgeton incident minesweeping

operations would be required to clear the convoy route.

However, minesweeping operations would be slow and laborious

and would not prevent the Iranians from seeding more mines.

COMIDEASTFOR's solution was therefore, a combination of

surveillance, presence, and minesweeping. The

implementation of this solution required the placement of

sea bases (similar to SEAFLOAT in Vietnam) along the convoy

route contiguous to Farsi Island. COMIDEASTFOR's vision had

advantages over devoting U.S. Navy warships, which would be

subject to the same mine threat as the tankers they were

escorting, to full-time patrolling in the north.

The operational concept was militarily plausible.

USCINCCENT would employ two mutually supporting mobile sea

bases utilizing the unique capabilities of Special

Operations Forces (SOF). The MSBs would be positioned

opposite Farsi Island to counter Iranian aggression and

provide Patrol Boats (PBs) to ERNEST WILL convoys for flank

security.

CENTCOM contracted two derrick barges from a major

international company in Bahrain. The barges, named

Hercules and Wimbrown Seven were originally designed for

constructing at-sea oil platforms in the Persian Gulf.l2

Because of the long Iran-Iraq war, the international company

had mothballed these barges, so they were readily available

for conversion into mobile sea bases. USCINCCENT ordered

the barges converted into fortresses capable of supporting

ERNEST WILL convoys, conducting patrols, and supporting

minesweeping and other special operations missions.

Hercules required fewer modifications than Wimbrown

Seven to be ready for military operations. COMIDEASTFOR

rushed Hercules into operation within two weeks in order to

deploy it by late September l987. Crews of U.S. military

personnel and the contractor's engineers, fabricators and

welders worked around the clock to modify "Barge Hercules"

into "MSB Hercules," a military base capable of supporting

patrol boats, minesweepers, and helicopters. Wimbrown Seven

required major structural work and a new helicopter deck

prior to it being ready and it took three months to modify,

outfit, and deploy.

Once outfitted, the MSBs could be slowly moved from

place to place but were not maneuverable like ships. At

sea, a four point mooring system stabilized Hercules and

Wimbrown Seven. Once anchored, it took about an hour to rig

the MSBs for towing--usually at a maximum speed of only four

knots. This would make the MSB highly vulnerable to air or

missile attacks.

Throughout his tenure as USCINCCENT, General Christ, a

Marine who undoubtedly understood the lessons of Beirut, was

deeply concerned about the safety of the mobile sea bases.

He would often visit to inspect the MSBs, and personally and

quite emphatically would give orders to build additional

hardened defensive positions and install more weapons.

Despite the apparent concern for MSB defenses,

USCINCCENT hastily put Hercules into operation in close

proximity of Farsi Island without the mutual support of

Wimbrown Seven. And unless an ERNEST WILL convoy passed by

Hercules, no U.S. warships were within supporting range--and

often were fifty nautical miles away.

 

THE TACTICAL LEVEL

On 2l September l987 the Iran Ajr incident hastened the

deployment of MSB Hercules. U.S. Army helicopter gunships,

called Seabats,13 successfully attacked and halted the

Iranian vessel, Iran Ajr, as it was seeding mines in

international waters routinely transited by ERNEST WILL

escort patrols.14 Later, U.S. Naval Special Warfare

elements, i.e., SEALs and Special Boat Unit personnel,

captured the ship and took prisoners. Two nights later,

Naval forces executed a mission to scuttle the minelayer. A

formation consisting of the destroyer USS Kidd in the lead,

followed by the frigate USS Thach towing the Iran Air, and a

screen of four MK III Sea Spectre Patrol Boats providing

rear security, towed the Iran Air into the Iranian Exclusion

Zone. In pitch black, U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance and SEAL

personnel emplaced demolition charges and set fuses. Thirty

minutes later the charges detonated. The Iran Air keeled

over and sank in less than a minute.

Tehran vowed retribution.15 The Iranians' target was

MSB Hercules. In accordance with their threat, Iranian

gunboats opened fire on U.S. helicopters seventeen days

later. As late as "... Thursday, before the shooting, an

Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander said Tehran was

planning a surprise attack against the United States and its

allies."16

In light of these developments, it is astonishing that

COMIDEASTFOR did not warn the MSB Hercules commander that

Tehran had vowed a surprise attack against the U.S., that

Iranian gunboats were transiting to and from Farsi Island,

and that more than sixty Iranian gunboats had massed at

Kharg Island.

 

MSB Hercules sat 25 miles from Farsi Island, isolated

from the force, highly vulnerable while attached to a four

point moor, and under the rules of engagement, the commander

could do nothing about an Iranian dhow17 shadowing the

Hercules and apparently providing intelligence to the

Iranians.

During the day of 8 October, the MSB commander and his

deputy were discussing their concern with the Iranian dhow

and their lack of intelligence, or even a basic news

service, to keep them informed of the situation. They both

had a "gut feeling" that something was going to happen that

night and decided to mount an intelligence gathering mission

in conjunction with their routine patrol that evening.18

The plan to set up a listening post was simple.

Two 65-foot MK III Patrol Boats19 would transit in company

with a 36-foot SEAFOX.20 The PBs would move in a tight

column with the SEAFOX abreast and to port of the second PB.

The MSB commander intended this formation to shadow the

SEAFOX from the Decca radar on Farsi Island. The patrol

would move to Middle Shoals light where the SEAFOX would

decrease speed to let the second PB pass ahead so the SEAFOX

could maneuver to the buoy undetected by the Iranian radar.

Once tied off to the buoy, communications technicians would

attempt to intercept Iranian signals. For protection, the

MSB commander ordered the SEAFOX to be armed heavier than

normal. Two PBs and three Seabats would be in close

proximity to render support. Under cover of darkness, the

patrol got underway while simultaneously, in a different

direction, three Seabats took off to reconnoiter Middle

Shoals Light and the PBs' transit route.

Meanwhile, Iran was executing its plan for retribution.

The IRGC deployed three gunboats west of the Iranian

Exclusion Zone in the vicinity of Middle Shoals Light at a

time when no merchant shipping was transiting their zone of

operations. The Iranians were not targeting merchants;

their target was the Hercules.

The Iranians shot first. At approximately 2OOO hours

Persian Gulf Local time, Seabat pilots reported they were

"taking fire." An Iranian Boghammer and two Boston whaler-

type speedboats opened fire with l2.7MM machine guns and

launched a U.S. made Stinger at the Seabats. As the

Commander and his deputy watched the attack from the

Hercules' upper flight deck, they saw the Seabats respond.

The Seabats returned fire with 2.75 inch high explosive and

flechette rockets and 7.62MM miniguns. One rocket slammed

into the Boghammer, instantly killing the coxswain and

navigator, and ripping a gaping hole on the port side

amidship the waterline. Water gushed in immediately,

sinking the boat in 16O feet of water. Seabat miniguns and

rockets devastated the two speedboats, setting them ablaze

with direct hits to the gasoline tanks. The boats literally

came apart at the seams. The Seabats returned to Hercules to

 

be refueled and rearmed.

 

The PBs were on-scene within minutes. Their crews

captured six IRGC members, giving the wounded immediate

first aid and retrieving the remains of the two speedboats.

Amid the oily debris and fire that still raged on the water,

one sailor saw what he thought was a Stinger battery afloat

in its styrofoam container. He dove in the sea and

retrieved the battery.21 The PBs returned to Hercules, off-

loaded the prisoners and speedboat wreckage, and were

ordered to screen the Hercules while the Seabats refueled.

Suddenly, in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) on

the Hercules, the radar screen showed approximately forty

blips at about forty miles away. The MSB TOC communicated

this information to COMIDEASTFOR, who immediately dispatched

the frigate USS Thach and amphibious ship USS Raleigh to

reinforce the Hercules. The blips were CBDR--constant

bearing, decreasing range on their way toward Hercules. The

IRGC had launched a strike of forty gunboats at Hercules!

As crews frantically rearmed the Hercules' Seabats,

three more Seabats from the USS Thach had arrived and needed

fuel. A USMC CH-46 from the USS Raleigh landed and

evacuated the IRGC prisoners. At general quarters, the

Hercules braced for an attack as its commander calmly spoke

to the PBs' patrol leader apprising him of the situation and

giving him the order, "interdict and engage." After about

fifteen minutes, six Seabats were orbiting in two formations

waiting to battle the IRGC gunboats. As the USS Thach

approached the area, the IRGC gunboats suddenly retreated.

The surprise attack Tehran vowed against the United States

had failed.

 

LONG COMMISSION FINDINGS VERSUS CENTCOM EXECUTION

A comparative analysis of the Beirut Barracks and MSB

Hercules incidents reveals common problems. The problems

and recommendations identified in the Long Commission Report

should have provided CENTCOM planners a means to prevent the

same problems which later were encountered by MSB Hercules

on the night of 8 October l987. These problems entailed

ineffectual command and control, poor intelligence support,

a lack of protection and security planning for tactical

forces, and confusing rules of engagement.

 

Command and Control

The Long Commission found the U.S. Commander-in-Chief

European Command (USCINCEUR) at fault in the Beirut Barracks

incident by "... citing the failure of the USCINCEUR

operational chain of command to monitor and supervise

effectively the security measures and procedures employed by

the USMNF on October l983."22 Had the Iranians succeeded

in striking disaster on MSB Hercules, the Secretary of

Defense (SECDEF) most likely would have ordered an

investigation similar to the Long Commission. If the

SECDEF had ordered the "Hercules Commission," it would have

arrived at the same conclusion as the Long Commission; i.e.,

it would have charged USCENTCOM with failure to monitor and

supervise effectively the deployment of MSB Hercules before

it was properly outfitted with a certified communications

suite, adequate defensive positions and weapons, and

protection from Iranian and Iraqi air threats, including the

mutual support of MSB Wimbrown Seven.

 

Intelligence Support

In both the Beirut incident and the employment of MSBs,

intelligence support was ineffective at the tactical level.

The Long Commission reported that the BLT commander did not

receive "...timely intelligence, tailored to his specific

operational needs."23 The same problem pervaded MSB

commanders throughout their participation in ERNEST WILL.

Two MSB commanders with military subspecialties in

intelligence complained of the lack of indications and

warning intelligence and tailored intelligence information

for their operations.24 This lack of intelligence

restricted the MSB commanders' ability to plan and execute

patrol missions based on an accurate intelligence

assessment.

Other facets of intelligence support for the MSBs were

lacking. For instance, the MSBs were not assigned

dedicated Intelligence Officers. After nine months on

station in the northern Persian Gulf, CENTCOM assigned a

U.S. Air Force senior enlisted intelligence specialist to

MSB Hercules; however, he did not possess the requisite

background and training in both US, and Iranian naval order

of battle nor naval electronic warfare capabilities.

 

Protection

COMIDEASTFOR envisioned two MSBs to be mutually

supportive, providing a degree of protection to negate the

requirement for a ship to be permanently stationed in the

northern Persian Gulf. That being the case, why would

USCINCCENT approve the COMIDEASTFOR decision (over the

objections of the JTFME Commander) to deploy MSB Hercules

without the support of MSB Wimbrown Seven?

After the incident of 8 October l987, COMIDEASTFOR

permanently stationed an FFG-7 class frigate to provide air

protection, positive communications, and additional weapons.

Yet the stationing of a warship was not part of the initial

operational plans. Weeks later a Naval Special Warfare

communications van arrived onboard MSB Hercules. This van

was complete with the full range of communications

equipment, including satellite communications and hard copy

terminal equipment. Still a year after MSB Hercules'

deployment, weapons and defensive positions were being

Constantly upgraded. These facts suggest that MSB Hercules

 

was unnecessarily rushed into deployment without adequate

 

protection.

 

 

 

Rules of Engagement

The Long Commission found the USMNF rules of engagement

(ROE) to be ambiguous, adversely affecting the mind set of

the Marines at Beirut International Airport. This detracted

from the overall readiness of Marines on duty and caused

them to respond less aggressively to the terrorist threat on

23 October l983.25

U.S. warship and MSB commanders were mindful of the

Beirut experience and aggressively conducted their mission.

As a result of the Iran Ajr and Middle Shoals Light

Incidents, U.S. forces became increasingly vigilant to

Iranian attack and conducted patrols in a more aggressive

manner. Notwithstanding, the Persian Gulf ROE were lengthy,

complex and as ambiguous as the USMNF ROE. This is best

illustrated by the weekly Rules of Engagement Quiz

administered by COMIDEASTFOR via general service message to

all ships in the Persian Gulf. Commanders of U.S. naval

ships were required to respond in a timely manner. They

often disagreed on the answers and many responded with the

wrong answer. I opine that the Persian Gulf ROE may have

contributed to the unfortunate accidents in which the USS

Stark and USS Vincennes26 were involved. One must

understand that commanders, junior officers, and senior

enlisted men with weapons release authority had to interpret

what constituted "hostile intent."

 

LESSONS LEARNED

In failure we learn the hard lessons, but successes

often eclipse the serious mistakes we should have learned

from failure. On that fateful day in l983 the bombing of

the Marine Barracks severely tested U.S. strategic policy

objectives in Lebanon. Those policy objectives failed.

A few years later in the Persian Gulf Iran and Iraq twice

tested U.S. strategic policy objectives: against Iran during

Operations ERNEST WILL and PRAYING MANTIS and against Iraq

during OPERATIONS DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. In those

operations the application of military power as an extension

of national policy worked well. If the successes of

Operations ERNEST WILL and PRAYING MANTIS in the Persian

Gulf somehow assuaged our strategic failure in Lebanon, the

successes of Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

completely overshadowed them.

During the course of and following all conflicts, the

military establishment takes great pains to document what

works and what does not. This is a process called lessons

learned. At the joint and service levels, staffs catalogue,

disseminate, teach, debate and incorporate lessons learned

into military doctrine--a painstaking process. But what

good does doctrine serve if we merely treat it as a body of

knowledge for occasional reference? While doctrine is

authoritative, it is not directive. Therefore, doctrine

should be a stimulus to critical thinking because it

requires judgment in application, and judgment requires

purposeful and logical thought. The adage that one can lead

a horse to water but cannot make him drink applies to the

use of doctrine. Just because doctrine exists does not mean

we will necessarily use it.

The Beirut incident had important lessons that the

military services should have incorporated into doctrine and

should have been utilized by operational planners. Of the

six operational functions-- command and control,

intelligence, maneuver, fires, logistics, and protection--

that are used to analyze campaigns and military actions, the

function of protection appears to have been lacking for the

Marines at Beirut airport. This is despite the fact that

just six months prior to the Beirut bombing, Lebanese

terrorists bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut in a similar

manner killing 63. Protection should have been a top

priority for theater planners at the operational level.

The lessons of both bombing incidents in Beirut should

have weighed heavily on the minds of operational planners at

CENTCOM who should have taken them into account while

planning the employment of the mobile sea bases. If CENTCOM

planners did take these incidents into account, then why was

mobile sea base Hercules rushed into deploying to the

northern Persian Gulf, isolated from the force without

protection, and with a planned two hour medical evacuation

turnaround time?

Because we know little about the mobile sea bases and

their employment, analysis and critical thinking of this

subject have been lacking. In retrospect one can speculate

whether the employment of derrick barges as mobile sea bases

in the northern Persian Gulf was the best operational

solution during Operation EARNEST WILL to effectively serve

U.S. foreign policy objectives. Numerous other questions