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07-13-03, 01:52 PM
Mobile Sea Base Hercules in the Northern Persian

Mobile Sea Base Hercules In The Northern

Persian Gulf: Beirut Barracks II?

CSC 1995

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.



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.


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