On January 28, three American soldiers were killed and dozens injured by a one-way suicide drone at a remote outpost in Jordan, marking the first time that US servicemembers were killed in action since the start of the war in Gaza. Although the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an alliance of several Shi’a militias claimed responsibility, there was little question who was actually behind the attack. As part of the “Axis of Resistance,” the group serves as an Iranian proxy with many of its affiliates benefiting from the Islamic Republic’s financing, training, and planning. Some of the group’s members, such as Kataib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, were active combatants against the United States during the 2003–2011 war in Iraq.
Crossing the red line of killing Americans immediately spurred a debate of how best to respond. Many, including some officials within the Biden administration, are concerned that escalating could widen the conflict and that a response should be proportional. While such a stance has generally been US policy during the post-9/11 wars, some have argued that there is a longer historical precedent that “getting embroiled in a major conflict with Iran is in no one’s interests.” Such a claim, however, is not historically accurate—during the 1980s “tanker war,” the United States became embroiled in a major conflict with Iran that included Operation Praying Mantis, the US Navy’s largest surface action since World War II. That operation still offers lessons for us today on how to best respond to aggression and manage the dangers of escalation.
Operation Praying Mantis was part of a larger operation, Earnest Will, which began in 1987 when Iraqi and Iranian forces increased attacks on merchant ships in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War. Earnest Will reflagged Kuwaiti tankers under the Stars and Stripes, which enabled them to be escorted by US Navy Warships. In July 1987, after one of the tankers in the very first escorted convoy struck a mine, elements of the newly formed US Special Operations Command were called forward to assist the mission. Two months later, helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment caught an Iranian ship laying mines and disabled it. Navy SEALs then boarded the vessel, gathered intelligence and evidence, and scuttled the ship. In other skirmishes days after that incident, US helicopters sank three other Iranian boats. After two tankers were hit by missiles the next month, Navy warships shelled IRGC bases on Iranian oil platforms. Navy SEALs followed the attacks, planting demolitions charges that destroyed one platform before they boarded and searched another.
The conflict escalated greatly when a US Navy frigate struck a mine in April 1988. Ten sailors were injured, and the ship, whose keel was broken in the blast, was saved only through heroic damage control. Mines recovered from the area matched the sequence of those from the scuttled Iranian minelayer, prompting a fierce retaliation in the form of Operation Praying Mantis. In the ensuing battles, Navy and Marine elements destroyed two oil platforms used by Iranian military forces, along with an Iranian navy frigate, a missile patrol boat, and a handful of small attack craft. As the fighting continued, American forces crippled another Iranian frigate and damaged an Iranian fighter jet. Stung by its defeats, Iran decreased its attacks against merchant vessels after the US responses.
To be clear, there are differences between the context surrounding Operation Praying Mantis and the regional situation today. Iran is stronger and has numerous proxies spread across the region. Its intelligence and IRGC officers stand ready across the globe to create mayhem. Iranian-sponsored attacks are occurring not only on land in Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, but also at sea against shipping in the Bab al-Mandeb straight off Yemen.
But some things remain the same. The United States maintains escalation dominance and can do far more damage to Iran than vice versa. While Iran and its proxies could hit vulnerable forces in Iraq and Syria, such an escalation would almost certainly draw an even more powerful US response. Moreover, there are other examples when, like it did during Operation Praying Mantis, Iran has backed down when its forces were struck directly. During the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Iranian proxies actively targeted US forces, but attacks diminished when the United States resumed unilateral attacks and threatened IRGC elements. In the days after the 2020 killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s retaliatory strikes against US forces in Iraq failed to kill anyone and ended abruptly after a perfunctory response that was likely intended for its domestic audience.
There is also one other factor to weigh. Iran continues to enrich uranium, nearing the threshold of weapons-grade enrichment, while also barring international inspectors access to its nuclear program facilities. Given its longstanding objective of developing nuclear weapons, a violent and lengthy escalation would imperil that goal, creating additional scrutiny toward and hardening global resolve against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. To maintain the possibility of faster progress on its nuclear efforts, it is far better for Iran to not stir things up more than it already has.
Such considerations likely weigh heavily in the minds of US planners as they decide what to do next. Among the first steps should be to enhance security for American and allied bases across the region. Additional forces, air defenses, and protection should all be deployed where possible. Embassies should be put on high alert. Bases that are too small or vulnerable should be closed. More minesweeping and anti–submarine warfare assets should be moved to the region, ready to respond to dangers in the Persian Gulf or the Bab al-Mandeb.
These measures, aimed at enhancing the security of US assets in the region, are the easy part of the decision. The more difficult part is how, once US forces are prepared for the inevitable tit for tat, the United States should calibrate offensive military actions. Such actions could include targeting senior IRGC Quds Force leaders outside of Iran and linked to its violent proxies, especially those who helped train, advise, or assist those who carried out the attack in Jordan. But it should also take place at sea, where a modern Operation Praying Mantis would demonstrate US resolve and capability to respond appropriately and effectively to Iranian provocations, just as it did in 1988. Off Yemen, the United States should warn the crew of the Iranian spy ship providing targeting information to Houthi fighters and give them enough time to abandon ship before sinking it. In the Persian Gulf, the United States should tell Iran that submarines and craft capable of laying mines will not be allowed to leave their bases until this crisis is over or they will be destroyed.
Targets within the borders of Iran should be excluded from the first series of strikes to limit the risk of escalation and provide Iran an off-ramp. The United States should also publicly communicate that if Iran decides to escalate, it is prepared to end those initial prohibitions. In all likelihood, there will be a series of escalations like those that happened in the 1980s before Iran decides that it has had enough.
Risks of escalation warrant serious attention. But they should be examined with an understanding of relevant historical precedent and a sober analysis of Iranian interests and vulnerabilities, because escalation is not the only risk. There are also dangers of inaction or a minimalist response to the attack in Jordan, which are only likely to increase over time. Either of these would be perceived as weakness and engender more violent and frequent attacks against US assets. Taking decisive action now will likely deter future Iranian action as well as reduce Iran’s capacity to conduct even more deadly operations. Such a response was successful during Operation Praying Mantis and is likely the best solution to the current challenge. More importantly, our friends and enemies are also watching and gauging our resolve. Failing to take a proportional response to Iran’s escalations will embolden our adversaries and weaken our allies’ confidence long after this crisis is over.
Dr. Frank Sobchak is a retired US Army Special Forces colonel who served in various assignments in war and peace during a twenty-six-year military career. He is the chair of irregular warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at the US Military Academy, a senior fellow with the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida, and a fellow (contributor) for the MirYam Institute. He is a coauthor of the acclaimed two-volume The U.S. Army in the Iraq War and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, Time, the Jerusalem Post, Defense One, the Hill, War on the Rocks, and the Small Wars Journal. His X handle is @abujeshua.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Cpl. John Hyp, US Marine Corps