A fierce naval battle 35 years ago shows how destructive another US showdown with Iran could get

US Navy guided-missile frigate USS Hawes leads a reflagged tanker and two US warships in a convoy in the Persian Gulf in October 1987.

US Navy/PH2 Elliot

The US military is sending forces to the Persian Gulf in response to Iran’s seizure of oil tankers.
The deployments have been compared to a US operation in 1987-1988 to defend tankers from Iranian attacks.
Today, however, Iran fields a much different military, and the situation in the Gulf has changed, experts say.

Tensions are rising in the Persian Gulf, where the US is deploying additional air and naval forces to deter Iranian seizures of commercial tanker ships.

The deployment has led to renewed fears of conflict between the US and Iran, drawing comparisons to another clash 35 years ago that was a decisive victory for the US and a devastating defeat for Iran.

In late April, as part of its sanctions-enforcement effort, the US confiscated a tanker loaded with Iranian oil bound for China. Days later, Iran responded by seizing a Marshall Islands-flagged tanker. In July, the US Navy said it had prevented Iranian seizures of two other tankers and that “Iran has harassed, attacked or seized nearly 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels” since 2021.

In recent weeks, the US has deployed F-35 and F-16 fighter jets to the Gulf along with warships and 3,000 Marines and sailors. The Biden administration is even considering putting Marines on merchant vessels to prevent Iranian seizures.

Earlier this month, during drills near an Iranian-controlled island in the Gulf, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards navy unveiled new naval vessels armed with missiles with a reported range of 370 miles — likely a deliberate display of capability.

Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy fast-attack craft swarm an oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on May 3.

US Naval Forces Central Command/US 5th Fleet via REUTERS

The rising tensions and military buildup have led to comparisons to Operation Earnest Will, which saw US warships deploy to the Gulf from 1987 to 1988 to escort reflagged Kuwaiti tankers that Tehran had been targeting throughout the second half of the Iran-Iraq War.

In tandem with Earnest Will, the US launched the covert Operation Prime Chance to expose and prevent Iranian mine-laying in the Gulf. The first tanker to be escorted during Earnest Will, the SS Bridgeton, struck an Iranian mine on July 24, 1987.

There were clashes and confrontations between US and Iranian forces throughout Earnest Will, the biggest of them during Operation Praying Mantis, which the US launched four days after guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine on April 14, 1988.

Operation Praying Mantis was the US’s largest naval action since World War II. During the hours-long fight, US forces sank the Iranian frigate Sahand and crippled the frigate Sabalan, which was intentionally left afloat to avoid further escalation. More than 50 IRGCN and Iranian Navy personnel were killed, while the US lost one SeaCobra helicopter and its two crew members.

Iranian frigate IS Sahand after being hit by Harpoon missiles and cluster bombs from US Navy aircraft on April 19, 1988.

US Navy

A naval clash now would likely have a markedly different outcome. After all, Iran has made significant changes to its naval forces and tactics over the past 35 years, becoming “much more asymmetric,” according to Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and expert on naval operations.

Iran’s naval force now consists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, known as the IRGCN, and the regular Iranian Navy, Clark told Insider. “The IRGCN operates in the Persian Gulf and uses mostly small, fast boats that are hard for traditional navies to counter,” Clark said. “These fast boats often carry anti-ship missiles or are set up to operate remotely and act as attack drones.”

The Iranian Navy still primarily consists of frigates and corvettes, which operate outside the Gulf, and is much more like other conventional navies.

Farzin Nadimi, a defense and security analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also emphasized the differences in the capabilities and mission of the IRCGN and Iran’s Navy.

“The IRGCN has transformed compared to 35 years ago with a vast organization and much more capabilities arrayed along the Iranian coastline,” Nadimi told Insider.

Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy speedboats during an exercise at Abu Musa Island in August.

IRGC/WANA/Handout via REUTERS

While the IRGCN still largely relies on “lightly armed speedboat swarms firing rockets and machine guns at their targets,” it has supplemented that “with a large quantity of higher-quality speedboats” armed with short- to long-range anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, Nadimi said.

The IRGCN also has various drones, large numbers of water-borne improvised explosive devices, better missiles and artillery, and a more effective intelligence network than it did 35 years ago. On top of this, Iranian air defenses are also much better than they were in the late 1980s.

Iran’s navy has also improved. Iran has developed a “homegrown shipbuilding capability” and commissioned several indigenous frigates and missile boats, Nadimi told Insider.

While Iranian navy ships have significantly improved their anti-ship and electronic-warfare capabilities, their air defenses have not changed much in the past 35 years, though they are “working on” that, Nadimi said, adding that Iranian navy training has “more or less remained unchanged” for over the past three decades.

Iranian Navy warship Sahand in Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz in April 2019.

Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In sum, Nadimi said, Iran’s naval forces have “increased quantity; higher quality; better communications; expanded organization; marginally better training, unchanged geographical advantages, except they have more underground fortifications now.”

The context of the current US deployment is also substantially different. At the time of Earnest Will, the US was intervening to help a partner state export oil amid the Iran-Iraq War, a major conflict that had raged for seven years by that point.

Nadimi said US lawmakers at the time feared the Earnest Will deployment could prolong the “Tanker War” between Iran and Iraq, endanger the flow of oil, harm US neutrality, or push Iran closer to the Soviet Union.

“They were worried the US was about to make the same mistake it made in Lebanon” by employing US forces “on a symbolic mission without clear and attainable military objectives,” Nadimi said. “Some of those arguments resonate today as well.”

US Marines train in close-quarters tactics aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan while en route to the Middle East in July 2023.

US Marine Corps/Cpl. Kyle Jia

Iran’s recent seizure of tankers is also not as provocative as attacking them would be. In 1987, Iran had two Silkworm anti-ship missile sites near the Strait of Hormuz. As the convoy operation for the reflagged tankers was about to start in July 1987, “the US warned Iranians against any use of their newly deployed Silkworm missiles,” Nadimi said. “It also considered the risk of escalation if Iran interpreted additional US forces in the region as hostile intent and acted accordingly.”

Today, Iran has hundreds of high-quality missile launchers aimed at the Gulf. Whether Iran would use those missiles, its large arsenal of sea mines, or some other means to attack a US-guarded tanker in the Gulf today is still a matter of speculation, Nadimi said.

During Earnest Will, US military personnel weren’t deployed on the tankers being escorted — the US hasn’t put troops on merchant vessels since World War II — and Nadimi doubted that such a deployment today would make conflict more likely.

“I don’t think there is a high risk of a clash between Iran and the US, and even placing armed US Marines on merchant ships and tankers — if it even happens — will not significantly increase that possibility, although it might increase the risk of accidental escalation,” Nadimi said. “In general, the situation in the Gulf region is not as dangerous and volatile as it was in 1987.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and columnist who writes about Middle East developments, military affairs, politics, and history. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications focused on the region.

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