Mobile Sea Base Hercules In The Northern
Persian Gulf: Beirut Barracks II?
SUBJECT AREA Warfighting
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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