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1985: Sacred Oil – And the Sea Gave Up the Dead

This After Action Report covers the Soviet push toward Bandar Abbas, where the first direct clash between Soviet and American forces occurred during the opening phases of World War Three. This report tries to offer a quite detailed description of the events, while at the same time avoiding to plunge into technicalities.

Prologue

Bandar Abbas is the most ambitious initial objective of the Soviet offensive against Iran, as its control would achieve two strategic goals: denying the Americans one of the best strategic areas for building up forces and controlling the sea lanes needed by Western countries for oil supply.

Soviet forces from Afghanistan and Central Asia Military District are assigned to the task, but for once Soviet High Command cannot rely on quantity, as the poor lines of communications and the scarce number of usable airfields do not allow committing vast forces to the operation.

In the days preceding the Soviet attack, Iranian clergy remains impervious to US offers of military support. When access to Iranian air space and bases is finally granted, only a few hours are left for organizing some sort of defense. With time running out and no other forces immediately available, CENTCOM decides to take its chances and orders USS CV-64 Constellation battle group to pass the strait of Hormuz and protect Bandar Abbas until airfields in the area are made operational and the Marines arrive.

SITREP – June 28, 1985

Soviet Union

Soviet offensive against Iran will probably develop along three different axis:

Soviet forces from Afghanistan
(click for details)

From Transcaucasian Military District: 4th Combined Arms Army, 7th Guards Combined Arms Army, 12th Corps, 34th Corps. This Front will probably have Dezful and Bushehr as primary objectives.

From Turkmenistan Military District: 36th Corps, plus additional brigade or battalion level formations. This front will probably move toward Tehran.

From Afghanistan: Part of 40th Combined Arms Army, 17th Corps, 103rd Guards Airborne Division, 56th Landing Assault Bde, 15th Independent GRU Bde. This Front will advance through Eastern Iran with Bandar Abbas as primary objective.

Air Forces (squadrons): 6x Mig-23 fighter, 3x Su-24 fighter-bomber, 2x Su-25 strike, 2x Tu-22 bomber, 1x Tu-22 ECM, 3x Recce, 7x transport squadrons, 2x Mi-24 attack helicopter , 5x transport helicopter.

Naval Forces: 3x nuclear attack submarines, 1x Intelligence ship.

US Coalition

CENTCOM has the primary objective of securing Bandar Abbas, with following forces at its disposal:

CV-64 Constellation Battlegroup (Task Force 1): Stationed approx. 50 nautical miles from Bandar Abbas and reinforced by two frigates and one combat store ship from UK Armilla patrol.

MPSRON 2 (Task Force 2): Stationed at Diego Garcia, it is loaded with 7th Marine Amphibious Brigade equipment and reinforced by two French frigates from La Reunion. TF2 could be in the AO within 4 or 5 days, personnel will be airlifted from US West coast.

1st Marine Amphibious Force (Task Force 3): Formed by LPH Okinawa and two escort frigates, it has just doubled the Malacca Strait and could be expected in the AO within 7 days.

Air Forces (squadrons): 1x F-15 fighter, 2x F-18 strike fighter, 1x AV-8 strike fighter, 1x A-6 strike, 2x A-4 strike, 1x F-111 strike, 1x RF-4 recon, 1x EA-6 ECM, 2x C-130 transport, 1x E-3 AEW. In addition, 2x F-14 fighter, 2x F-18 strike fighter, 1x EA-6 ECM from Constellation. The biggest problem for the air force is the insufficient number of airfields in the area, forcing most of the land-based squadrons to operate from Diego Garcia until additional air bases are made operational in Iranian territory.

Additional Naval Forces: 3x US nuclear attack submarines, 1x UK nuclear attack submarines.

Oman Forces: Oman has joined the Coalition, adding Khasab and Muscat air bases as operational air bases for US aircraft. Also, the following forces are at CENTCOM disposal: 1x Special Forces battalion, 1x C-130 squadron, 1x transport helicopters squadron, 2x Hunter air squadrons of dubious military value.

Iran Forces: Iran has not formally joined the Coalition, but agreed to access of its national territory and bases by Coalition forces. From a military point of view, the Iranian forces available as Bandar Abbas first line of defense are: 1x marines battalion, 1x airmobile division, 2x understrength F-4 strike fighter squadrons, 1x understrength F-5 strike fighter squadron, 3x transport helicopters squadrons, 1x destroyer, 1x frigate.

June 28 – June 29, 1985

The Soviet offensive in the Persian Gulf begins. STAVKA decides that the threat represented by Constellation battlegroup to airborne operations near Bandar Abbas cannot be ignored, and it is therefore necessary to eliminate or disrupt it as soon as possible. This means that hostilities against United States should start immediately.

The three Soviet submarines in the Strait of Hormuz start the chase, and Soviet Victor III class SSN K-492 is able to intercept the US Task Force by using coordinates and intelligence obtained by AGI ship Ladoga. British frigate HMS Charybdis is sunk, and the Soviet submarine is also damaged by the ASW defense.

Coalition submarines immediately retaliate by locating the unarmed but deadly dangerous Soviet spy ship, quickly sunk by HMS Turbulent.

Without real-time information about the enemy task force whereabouts, the ensuing Tu-22 Backfire strike loses a decisive advantage. Despite that, the F-14s CAP protecting the task force takes the bait of the Soviet reconnaissance aircraft posing as part of the strike group, thus failing to intercept the real threat. Two Tu-22 and one Su-24 squadrons slip thru the CAP and launch their missiles, set for the core sector of the enemy task force. Luckily for the Americans, the AS-4 Kitchen missiles are destroyed by the AA defenses or fail to lock on a target.

June 28, 1985: The Soviet Strike on CV-64 Battlegroup

With Constellation’s fighters busy fending off the Backfires strikes, Soviet 103rd Guards Airborne Division has a hard-gained window of opportunity for an airdrop 40km North of Bandar Abbas, outside the US air superiority zone and the range of the Iranian Hawk batteries. Iranian aircraft try to intercept the Iliushin-76 transports, but are badly mauled by the escorting Mig-23 and Su-24.

After the successful insertion, the Russian paratroopers move South using one of the few good roads. The lead regiment attacks the Iranian troops defending the city, with no regard for losses. The sacrifice of 350th regiment allows to cover the advance of the rest of the division to just a few kilometres from the two city airports.

June 28, 1985: 103rd Guards Division is airdropped near Bandar Abbas

Meanwhile in the Strait of Hormuz, HMS Turbulent seeks revenge for the loss of the frigate HMS Charybdis. After a chase of 24 hours, the British submarine is finally able to track down the damaged SSN K-492 and sink it with a salvo of Mk-24 Tigerfish torpedoes.

At dawn of June, 29th, CENTCOM executes OPLAN SHARP RAZOR, consisting of the following phases:

1. 1/82 Airborne Brigade Insertion
The brigade airdrops just West of Bandar Abbas, out of range from Soviet AA assets, and then moves into the city to reinforce the Iranian defense.

2. SEAD Strike on 103rd Guards Division
One F-18 squadron from CV Constellation, supported by an EA-6 ECM squadron, executes a SEAD Strike against the Soviet C-rated AA defenses near Bandar Abbas and pave the way for phase 3.

3. Air Resupply to Bandar Abbas
C-130s from Diego Garcia, escorted by F-14s from CV-64, unload a first batch of ammo and equipment at Bandar Abbas airfield. The remaining Soviet AA assets could inflict some damage to the transport aircraft, but the risk is considered as “acceptable” by CENTCOM.

4. Special Forces Insertion
A special forces battalion from Oman is inserted in the mountain pass North of Bandar Abbas, to disrupt supply and slow down the Soviet heavy divisions approaching from Afghanistan.

The operation goes as planned, but more supply will be needed to make the Bandar Abbas airfield operational for US aircraft.

Strategic Situation at June 29, 1985

June 30 – July 1, 1985

The intensity of the conflict increases sharply, as both sides launch several offensive operations:

  • In the Strait of Hormuz, Soviet SSN K-184 attacks the CV-64 Constellation battlegroup, damaging the Oliver Hazard Perry Frigate USS Jarrett (FFG-33). The efficiency and ASW defenses of the battlegroup are now dangerously low.
  • In Eastern Iran, Soviet 56th Landing Assault Brigade on Mi-6 helicopters attacks Savzarabad airfield with a surprise vertical assault. The Iranian attempt to support the defenders with F-5E strike fighters fails, and the base quickly falls under Russian control with no damage to the infrastructures.
  • The basing of Soviet fighters at Savzarabad airfield is a serious threat for the US Coalition. A strike mission by two F-18 squadrons inflicts serious damage, slowing down its possible use by Soviet aircraft.
  • A Soviet ground strike mission destroys the Hawk AA batteries at Bandar Abbas. This important result is paid dearly, with several planes shot down by intercepting F-14s and F-4s or by the Iranian AA defenses.
  • Two Soviet Motorized Rifle divisions and several support formations move at full speed toward Bandar Abbas from Eastern Iran.
  • F-111s from Diego Garcia strike the Soviet paratroopers at Bandar Abbas, but the mission has limited success.
  • The Omani air base of Khasab is made operational for US aircraft, and a USMC F-18 squadron is immediately based there.

July 2 – July 3, 1985

Soviet 17th Corps continues its march toward Bandar Abbas. Supply problems are for the moment ignored: each formation proceeds at maximum speed using up its own fuel reserves, with transport helicopters able to replenish only a small part of them. The vanguard of 70th Guards brigade attacks the Omani special forces battalion holding the mountain pass, forcing it to retreat.

With the bulk of its ground forces finally approaching, the Soviet High Command decides it’s time for a decisive blow against CV-64 battlegroup, already weakened by four days of submarine chase and attacks.

A powerful strike group takes off from Afghanistan bases and including: 2x Mig-23 squadrons, 2x Su-24 squadrons in attack configuration, 1x Tu-22 strike squadron, 1x Tu-22 ECM squadron and 3x recon squadrons acting as decoys.

The strike group is intercepted by two F-14 squadrons, supported by an Iranian F-4 squadron at reduced strength. The Mig-23 escort, by skill or sheer luck, succeeds into forcing half of the US F-14s to abort the mission. The remaining interceptors score several hits, but that’s not enough to stop the bombers. Dozens of SS-N-4 Kitchen missiles are launched at stand-off range toward the Constellation battlegroup, and DDG Barney is heavily damaged.

With additional US ground forces approaching, Soviets also try damaging the infrastructures at Bandar Abbas to slow down the supply and US Marines unload operations. The strike is carried over by three strike squadrons, but most of them are hit by the AA defenses and fail to inflict any significant damage.

At dawn of July 3, US F-111s from Diego Garcia suppress once again the Soviet AA missile defense near the city, thus allowing two C-130 squadrons to deliver much needed supply and equipment at the airport. Unfortunately, the Iranian base will need at least another Air Resupply mission before being able to operate US aircraft.

Some good news for CENTCOM arrive from the sea: Task Forces 2 and 3, both loaded with US Marines, doubled the Strait the Hormuz during the night and should arrive at Bandar Abbas within 24 hours.

July 4 – July 5, 1985

July 4th does not start well for the Americans, as the stealthy Soviet SSN K-143 once again eludes the ASW pickets of Constellation battlegroup and sinks the already damaged USS Jarrett frigate. A furious communication from CENTCOM orders the Commander of the carrier strike group to step down and be replaced by the second in command, effective immediately.

To make things worse, Soviet 5th Guards Motorized Rifle division reaches Bandar Abbas outskirts by forced march and proceeds to assault the city centre, helped by a deadly combat air support. The intercepting US F-14s and Iranian F-4s inflict some losses to the Soviet CAS, but in the end are swarmed by the Mig-23 superior numbers. The defending Iranian troops barely contain the attack, at the price of horrible losses.

Just a few hours later, Soviet 201st MRD replaces the tired 5th Guards and resumes the assault. With nothing left to reinforce the defense, the Iranian survivors retreat in the city suburbs.

Finally, at 0600 ZT the 1st Marine Amphibious Force debarks at Bandar Abbas using its CH-46 helicopters. A second brigade from 82nd Airborne division is also airlifted in the area, but it’s probably too late. On the positive side, the Soviets used up most of their aircraft during the assault to the city and are not able to disrupt the unloading operations.

July 6 – July 7, 1985

With the Soviets controlling the city centre and one of the two airfields, the US Coalition cannot afford to lose the last remaining airfield and the naval base, both located in the suburbs of Bandar Abbas. Knowing that the decisive assault is coming, CENTCOM launches two coordinated SEAD strikes to suppress the Soviet AA defenses in the area and ensure that the F-18s from CV-64 Constellation will make their Combat Air Support count.

At 0500 ZT, The Soviet attack begins. 56th Landing Assault Brigade executes a vertical assault on the oil field, and then proceeds to attack the US troops in the city in conjunction with 103rd Guards Airborne Division. Both attacks are only a diversion and the Russians pay an heavy price, but the US paratroopers use precious stockpiled ammo to fend them off.

At 0915 ZT, 201st Motorized Rifle Division joins the assault, and both sides throw in the remaining Combat Air Support. Low on ammo and with an additional Soviet division ready to move in as second assault echelon, US 82nd Airborne retreats to the civilian port West of Bandar Abbas. The Soviet division tries to exploit the initial success and attacks the port defenses, but its advance is stopped at 2 kilometres from the docks.

With no airfields available and the last operational port threatened by the Soviet troops, CENTCOM must take a hard decision. At 1717 ZT, the Commander of the US Coalition issues EXORD 71-85, giving the green light to OPERATION LINEBACKER – the evacuation of the Bandar Abbas area by all Coalition troops.

Debriefing

The scenario had one more turn to play, but the situation for US Coalition was beyond repair: Soviet forces hold the two Bandar Abbas airfields, one of the two ports, and will be probably able to gain control of the second one within the next day. With no infrastructures for debarking troops and supply, CENTCOM will be forced to completely change its strategy and mount a counterattack using additional forces not included in this scenario.

In retrospect, US Coalition made several decisive errors. Transport of supply and equipment needed to make the Bandar Abbas airfields operational were given priority, thus slowing down the arrival of 82nd Airborne division. Also, CENTCOM wasn’t able to stay focused on priorities and wasted its limited time and air resources on secondary objectives like damaging the advanced Soviet air bases. Last but not least, US interceptors should have focused on shooting down the Soviet decoy recon squadrons, thus depriving the Tu-22 bombers of their “cover” in the subsequent missions.

On the opposite side, the Soviets were remarkably efficient and focused. The immediate insertion of 103rd Guards Airborne division near Bandar Abbas, with the sole objective of positioning AA assets near the two airfields as soon as possible, was probably decisive as it forced the Americans to suppress the anti-air defenses in order to avoid losses on their C-130 transport aircraft.

5 thoughts on “1985: Sacred Oil – And the Sea Gave Up the Dead

  1. What is the reason why only one soviet para regiment attacks Bandar Abbas ? Would have been more profitable to attack with the full para division ?

    1. The real objective of the Bandar Abbas attack was not conquering the city, as even a whole division would have probably failed, but positioning anti-air assets within range of both Iranian airfields there. Even the average AA weapons available to the Soviet paras are a danger for a C-130 landing or taking off, thus making any attempt by the US to reinforce by air problematic.

  2. It was great to hear you guys have a chat together. Sacred Oil is great and Im glad I got on-board these “operations”.

    1. Thanks Josh! The Roundtable was really fun, even with my broken English 🙂

  3. Korean front:)

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