By Director of Naval History, Rear Admiral Sam Cox, U.S. Navy (Retired)
On 1 December 1990, Vice Admiral Stanley R. Arthur relieved VADM Henry H. Mauz, Jr. as Commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander U.S. SEVENTH Fleet.
The month of December 1990 was characterized by a massive deployment of U.S. naval forces while maritime interception operations continued at an intense pace. The first drifting mines were encountered in late December floating south from Iraqi mine-laying activity off Kuwait, which U.S. Navy forces could not observe due to restrictions imposed by U.S. Central Command (see H-gram 055.) Provocative Iraq MIRAGE F-1/Exocet flights continued over the northern Arabian Gulf. Iraq also began demonstration launches of long-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, with impact in western Iraq. (I cover Iraqi mine warfare in a comprehensive piece in the February 1991 installment and the “Great Scud Hunt” in the January 1991 installment.)
On 1 December, 18 ships of Amphibious Group THREE (PHIBGRU 3) with 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) embarked departed the U.S. West Coast. USS RANGER (CV-61) deployed from the U.S. West Coast on 8 December. USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (CVN-71) and USS AMERICA (CV-66) deployed from Norfolk on 28 December. On 6 January 1991, USS SARATOGA (CV-60) returned to the Red Sea via a record-breaking fifth transit of the Suez Canal following a tragedy off Haifa, Israel when a chartered liberty ferry capsized on 21 December, resulting in the loss of 21 SARATOGA Sailors. On 1 January 1991, USS MISSOURI (BB-63) arrived in the Gulf of Oman joining USS WISCONSIN (BB-64) in theater. On 12 January, PHIBGRU 3 arrived in the North Arabian Sea, joining Amphibious Task Group TWO, with 4th MEB embarked, forming the largest amphibious task force since the Korean War. On 14 January THEODORE ROOSEVELT arrived in the Red Sea and AMERICA arrived the next day, joining SARATOGA and USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67) already there. AMERICA remained in the Red Sea while THEODORE ROOSEVELT continued to the Arabian Gulf. Also on 15 January, USS RANGER arrived in the ARABIAN GULF, joining MIDWAY (CV-41) already there, making six carriers deployed for Operation Desert Storm. A total of 108 U.S. Navy ships were involved; 34 in the Arabian Gulf, 35 in the North Arabian Sea/Gulf of Oman, 26 in the Red Sea and 13 in the Mediterranean.
As of 6 December 1990, U.S. and coalition Navy ships had conducted 4,605 intercepts, 569 boardings and 22 diversions due to prohibited cargo. By 15 January 1991 the numbers were 6,913 intercepts, 823 boardings, and 36 diversions. The most contentious boarding was the Iraqi-flagged freighter IBN KHALDOON, the so-called “Peace Ship,” which was carrying international peace activists as well as prohibited cargo, on 26 December. The boarding team fired warning shots in the air and used a smoke and noise grenade to control the unruly crowd. After being diverted and prohibited cargo offloaded, IBN KHALDOON proceeded to Iraq arriving just in time for the peace activists to be used a “human shields” by Saddam Hussein.
On 4-5 January 1991, USS GUAM (LPH-9) and USS TRENTON (LPD-14) conducted Operation Eastern Exit, a daring long-range helicopter minimal-notice non-combatant evacuation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia, involving the first in-flight night refueling of helicopters by USMC KC-130’s. The U.S. Ambassador, Soviet Ambassador, 65 U.S. citizens, including 36 embassy personnel, and ultimately a total of 281 people including eight heads of mission and foreign nationals from 30 countries were successfully evacuated as Mogadishu descended into chaos.