The Persian Gulf
The crippled aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was making 14 knots on its way to Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain where its damage would be assessed for repair. Captain “Jimbo” Fisher didn’t like the decision to keep his carrier in the Persian Gulf. He didn’t like it one bit. Fisher strode back and forth on the bridge as he cursed whichever spineless politician had made that decision. Here in the Gulf and still damaged, the Abe made a tempting target. He was sure the Iranian mullahs and admirals were just contemplating their next move like a pack of hyenas circling a wounded lion. And, he could not believe that the President had forbidden American forces from fully retaliating by striking Iranian naval and air installations. The official statement from Washington, D.C., read “We will refuse to escalate the violence, especially since Iran acted in self-defense after being attacked by Israel.” American forces were once again forced to act with one arm tied behind their back by bureaucratic rules of engagement and only to act in self-defense and not fire unless fired upon. The thought that politicians could and should control a battle from some distant capital was ridiculous, but had been around for a very long time.
He didn’t have long to wait.
“Bridge, Combat,” came the call from his CIC Watch Officer.
“Go ahead,” answered Fisher.
“Captain, we have numerous high-speed surface contacts approaching from the Northeast.”
“Roger. Bosun, sound general quarters. Combat, Bridge. I’m staying here and taking the conn,” said the Captain. “Mason, prepare for a mass surface boat attack,” he said to his TAO.
“Roger, Captain. All weapons stations report manned and ready. Ingraham and Ford are in position to the Northeast and they are ready to intercept. Halsey is racing up from behind Ford and Freedom is also close by and is at flank speed to intercept the boat swarm,” reported LCDR Mason Palmer from his station in CIC.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGC Navy) had developed and practiced small boat “swarm” tactics since the end of the Iran – Iraq war in 1988. The Pasdaran (as the Guard units were known in Iran) found this form of asymmetric warfare particularly well-suited to the close confines of the Gulf. Dozens or even hundreds of cruise missile or other armed small boats would converge on a target from different directions to overwhelm the defenses. And the attack on this day would include the first-ever real combat use of wing-in-ground effect vehicles (WIG).
“Bridge, Combat. We have 90 plus high speed surface contacts approaching from 3 vectors. Speed varies from 45-55 knots. Designate raids 1-3. Range between 12 and 14 miles. CIWS and RAM mounts are on auto.”
“Very well, Mase. Keep the updates coming,” instructed the Captain.
“Bridge, Combat. New contacts, designate raid 4. Another 20 plus; range 10 miles. Raids 1-4 advancing on a threat axesspanning approximately 160 degrees. We are vectoring in our CAP to engage and have 2 more Hornets in bound from Bahrain, but it will be close.”
“How are the CAP birds loaded out? Do they have anti-surface,” asked Fisher anxiously.
“Affirm, Cap’n. Each has four Mavericks and two CBU-97 cluster bombs.”
“I don’t like those numbers, Mase. We have at least 80 widely dispersed boats heading our way and only 2 fighters for air support.”
“We also have the Super Cobra we were able to embark on Cape St. George. That AH-1Z will do some damage for us.”
Despite the optimism of his TAO, the Captain was right to be worried. Each of the 4 Maverick missiles carried by the 2 F/A-18E Super Hornets on Combat Air Patrol could easily destroy a small attack boat. And, each of the CBU bombs would disperse 40 sensor-fused munitions which could also destroy a small boat (or an armored vehicle as originally designed). But the over 80 boats were widely dispersed, limiting how many groups the Super Hornets could engage. Fisher figured that each F/A-18E would make one pass on two of the groups and kill many of the boats. But he could not count on all boats being neutralized. He would have to rely on his escorts and his own CIWS and RAM systems once again.
What the Captain did not know was that his injured ship was facing a far larger attack force. And, one that was coordinated. The surface search radars tracking the over 110 attack boats were not picking up the 10 semi-submersible Gahjae Class torpedo boats with each of the four flotillas. Based on the North Korean Taedong-C, the Gahjaes were advancing with the other Iranian craft and using the wakes to blend in with the surface clutter. Each Gahjae had two large torpedo tubes and was also laden with extra explosives. Like all the Iranian crews in the attack, they had volunteered with a willingness to martyr themselves while inflicting a humiliating defeat on the hated American infidels.
The last two components of the masterfully planned attack would come at the infidels from both above and below the waves. Mini-submarines were lying in wait to ambush the Americans even as their flying brothers in the new Bavar-2 ekranoplans closed in. Called Wing-In-Ground effect craft in the West, the ekranoplans had been built from expertise acquired from their Russian allies.
The six Ghadir class mini-subs were staged along the expected path of the American carrier. Their orders were merely to drift quietly and wait for the American ships to come to them. And so they had. The steel monstrosity had steamed past the first 2 subs, positioning them in the perfect position to fire their Hoot supercavitating torpedoes along the wake of the ship. First developed in the 1970s by the Soviets, supercavitatingtorpedos achieve their tremendous speeds by in effect “flying” in a gas bubble which is formed around the torpedo by the specially shaped blunt nose and gases vented from exhaust of their rocket engines. The bubble keeps the water from contact with the surface of the torpedo and this dramatically reduces drag and enables the tremendous speeds of over 200 knots.
“Are our escorts engaging with their 5 inchers,” demanded Fisher.
“No sir, they are in range, but there are a large number of civilian craft in the area. Merchants and fishing boats. We’ll need to get positive ID,” responded Palmer.
“ID hell,” yelled the Captain. “Engage!”
“Roger. All ships, weapons free. Engage. Say again, weapons free. Engage,” said Palmer over the fleet radio link.
The 5”/54 caliber Mk 45 lightweight guns on the destroyers Ingraham and Fordbegan firing at the two groups nearest to them. The Republican Guards began to jink and maneuver their boats to avoid the incoming fire. The five inch guns were scoring hits, but not all of them were kills and the boat swarm came ever closer.
The Super Hornets arrived over two of the groups as they came within 6 miles. Of the 40 cluster bomb munitions dropped over the closest group, several homed in on the same target and only 16 boats were destroyed. For the next three passes, the strike fighters had similar success. The number of attacking boats was reduced by nearly half, but 61 boats continued to advance. And this did not include the 28 remaining semi-submersible boats.
Aboard the Abe the now familiar call of “Vampire, vampire,” went out from the TAO. “New contacts, bearing 350 true feet dry, still beyond the beach, but be feet wet within a minute or two. Designate raid 5. Thirty-two missiles inbound. C-802 type.”
“My God,” thought the Captain. “And the tin cans,” he asked CIC.
“Destroyers are engaging the vampires now,” reported the LCDR Palmer. And then, “Vampire, vampire. Contacts separating from raids 1 through 4. Short range missiles from the attack boats!”
Ninteen of the remaining Iranian craft were missile boats and these had now launched their missiles once inside the five mile range to the Lincoln.
“Combat, confirm this is a different set of vampires from the first,” demanded Fisher.
“Confirmed two distinct sets of vampires inbound,” said Palmer flatly as he continued to work the controls of his radar screen and strained to understand the reports flooding in from the escorting ships.
Eighty-three boats continued to advance and were now joined by 70 missiles. Meanwhile, the Super Hornets had come about and were now firing Maverick missiles at the lead boats. All 8 missiles found their marks and more attacking boats fell victim to the 5 inch guns from the destroyers. All their ordnance expended, the Hornets now swooped low to engage boats with their 20 mm multi-barrel Vulcan cannon. Fifty boats remained. Then 40. But the boats weren’t dying fast enough.
Four miles south of the fully engaged carrier, the Bavar-2 ekranoplans took off from the placid surface of the Gulf. They had been hiding behind two non-descript tramp steamers approximately 2 miles apart and taxied away from the Lincoln, continuing to use the steamships as cover. Once airborne they quickly accelerated to their maximum speed of 120 knots. Half of the WIG craft swung northwest with the others turning northeast to approach the American ships from different vectors. The WIGs carried no weapons. They were the weapons and each carried 300 lbs of explosives and a single crewman as a pilot.
Made largely of fiberglass and flying a mere 15 feet above the waves, the ekranoplans were difficult for the American search radars to detect. Even worse, the fire control algorithms on the gun and missile systems evaluated the higher speed missiles as greater threats and continued directing the weapons systems to fire on them.
Onboard Ingraham and Ford the sailors manning port side .50 cal and 25 mm surface mounts began to shift fire from the surface boats to the low flying hybrid aircraft. Southeast of the Abe, the sailors on the Cape St. George did the same. The cruiser’s SM-6 missiles and CIWS engaged the flying boats with some success. One Bavar somehow slipped past her defenses and crashed into her superstructure just below the bridge. The fireball was only the first.
“Explosions to the South,” called out the Lincoln’s port lookout. “They’ve hit the Cape St. George.”
“Damn it,” swore Fisher. “Damn it!”
The Cape St. George had killed all but three of the 16 ekranoplans approaching from the Southwest. One of the survivors had scored the hit on the cruiser while the other two continued on toward the carrier. While her bridge was almost completely out of action, Cape St. George was able to continue steaming and fighting from her CIC which remained intact.
Of the Southeast group of WIGs, fully half of the other 16 remained and pressed their attack.
To the North, one C-802 impacted the Ingraham along with a Bavar. Her entire superstructure seemed to be on fire. Meanwhile the Ford had been lucky and had only been struck by fragments of missiles destroyed close in by her CIWS systems. Her luck was not to hold, however, as she was struck almost simultaneously by two explosive laden boats. The first struck dead amidships. The second struck her hull aft, demolishing her screws and rudders. Ford seemed to leap out of the water before settling back and burning with smoke and flame pouring out of the two gaping holes in her side. Water flooded in and she quickly began to list to starboard as her damage control crews fought to save her.
Back aboard the Lincoln, her luck had run out as well. A single C-802 found its mark between the two forward aircraft catapults. Then, like wasps swarming much larger prey, the ekranoplans and attack boats closed in. A Bavar struck her flight deck on the port side while another flew into her number four catapult. A third flew into the island superstructure. On her starboard side, a single surviving surface fast attack boat struck her below her number 2 elevator. Worse, 3 of the semi-submersible boats had also slipped past the furious American defense and struck the wounded carrier. The powerful warship shuddered along her entire 1,092 foot length as explosions lit up the dark skies. She was burning from bow to stern.
On the bridge Fisher had been thrown about like a toy and lost conscience temporarily. As he came to and regained his thoughts, all he could think to himself was how they had been like fish in a barrel. Their foes had laid this multi-layer trap for them and they sailed right into it.”
The final phase of the attack commenced. Each of the six Ghadir mini-submarines fired a single Hoot torpedo from ranges of between 1.4 to 2 miles. The torpedoes screamed at the burning, stricken ship at almost 200 miles per hour. The ship’s SSTDS torpedo defense system successfully neutralized 4 torpedoes. The other two ran straight and true into their target. The great ship shuddered again and more fires burned. Her keel was essentially broken in two locations and she started listing severely to starboard within minutes. Throughout the enormous ship sailors and Marines were dead or dying. Many of the dead and dying were horribly burned. Dozens caught in the lower decks below the water line were drowned or drowning. Others were trapped in burning compartments and dying of smoke inhalation. Those blown apart from the impacting missiles and explosions or with their flesh literally shredded off their bodies from the jagged pieces of shrapnel suffered considerably less.
Above them, on the hangar and flight decks some of the air wing crew was literally bathed in burning jet fuel and aviation gas. The horrible screams mixed with the deafening explosions. Other sailors, standing or working too close to the edge of the flight deck were tossed into the air by the massive concussions only to plummet the more than 90 feet to the treacherous waters of the Persian Gulf. Hitting the water from that height was almost like hitting concrete. Most of those blown off hit the water awkwardly and died. A few lucky ones hit feet first and survived with broken legs and broken backs. These then faced their next struggle to survive in trying not to drown while dealing with their shock and injuries.
Within 20 minutes from the initial contact report, the great ship was a burning hulk, dead in the water. Not since World War II had the U.S. Navy lost a battle or a capital ship, let alone both.