Jan 15

Surface Force in Desert Storm: USS Nicholas Leads a Distributed, Lethal Attack on Enemy Troops

Thursday, January 15, 2015 7:00 AM

By

From the Naval History and Heritage Command

A starboard quarter view of the guided missile frigate USS NICHOLAS (FFG-47) underway in support of Operation Desert Shield.

A starboard quarter view of the guided missile frigate USS NICHOLAS (FFG-47) underway in support of Operation Desert Shield.

The Battle of Ad-Dawrah may not have the branding of other naval warfare conflicts, like Midway or Leyte Gulf, but it was a shining moment for the naval surface force 24 years ago when USS Nicholas (FFG 47) and other frigates did their part in showering the enemy with “thunder and lightning” during the early days of Desert Storm.

Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, to the condemnation of the United Nations. After five months of sanctions that severed Iraq’s economic lifelines and a maritime interception campaign with 115 U.S. and 50 allied warships, it was time for Desert Shield to become Desert Storm.

For most Americans, the operation began on the evening of January 16th when President George H.W. Bush addressed the nation announcing the commencement of hostilities. In the Middle East, where it was already early the next morning, Operation Desert Storm was underway led by Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, in charge of all coalition forces, while then-Vice Adm. Stanley Arthur commanded the largest build-up of naval personnel and ships since World War II.

The war at sea was integral to the liberation of Kuwait. While continuing their high-tempo maritime interception mission, U.S. and coalition warships conducted a wide variety of contingency actions, from Tomahawk Land Attack Missile launches to naval gunfire support.

Almost immediately, Iraqi troops began setting off explosives previously placed around Kuwaiti oil fields. Iraqi troops had staked out observation posts on nine of 11 oil platforms in the Dorrah oilfield, about 40 miles off the Kuwaiti coast. From the platforms, they could gather intelligence on U.S. and allied aircraft and ship movements.

Flight deck crewmen refuel an SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter aboard the guided missile frigate USS NICHOLAS (FFG-47). The NICHOLAS is en route to its home port at Naval Station, Charleston, S.C., after serving in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Flight deck crewmen refuel an SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter aboard the guided missile frigate USS NICHOLAS (FFG-47). The NICHOLAS is en route to its home port at Naval Station, Charleston, S.C., after serving in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Navy surface forces made an impact early in Desert Storm, when USS Nicholas (FFG 47) and the Kuwaiti fast attack craft Istiqlal (P 5702) conducted the first surface engagement of the war on Jan. 18, 1991. Supporting combat search and rescue operations for the air campaign, Nicholas and her helicopters scouted the Dorrah oilfield.

In a daring night-time operation, well within range of Iraqi Silkworm missiles and near Iraqi combatant ships and aircraft armed with Exocet ship-killer missiles, Nicholas and Istiqlal attacked the enemy positions.

Nicholas crept to within a mile of the southernmost platforms under cover of darkness. Armed for air-to-surface combat, embarked Army AHIP helicopters, and joined by Nicholas‘ own SH-60 Seahawk helicopter from HSL-44, headed north –toward the enemy’s “back door.” Once in range, the helicopters launched a volley of precision-guided missiles that destroyed enemy positions on the two northernmost platforms. Seconds later, as six Iraqi soldiers attempted to escape to a waiting small craft, ammunition stockpiled on the platforms exploded, illuminating the night sky.

Officers and enlisted men stand their watches on the bridge of the guided missile frigate USS NICHOLAS (FFG-47) as the ship returns to its home port at Naval Station, Charleston, S.C. The NICHOLAS departed Charleston on September 21, 1990, and sailed for the Persian Gulf, where the ship served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Officers and enlisted men stand their watches on the bridge of the guided missile frigate USS NICHOLAS (FFG-47) as the ship returns to its home port at Naval Station, Charleston, S.C. The NICHOLAS departed Charleston on September 21, 1990, and sailed for the Persian Gulf, where the ship served in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Nicholas and her Kuwaiti counterpart came within range of their objectives. While Iraqis on the other platforms were staring at their neighbors’ flaming fortifications, the two ships opened fire, quickly neutralizing the remaining platforms. No enemy troops returned fire during the lightning-fast operation.

An Arabic-speaking crewman called out over the ship’s loudspeaker that anyone who wished to surrender should raise his hands. A monitor in Nicholas‘ combat information center displayed a flickering infrared image of an Iraqi waving weakly. Several hours later, the first 23 enemy prisoners of war were taken as teams boarded the platforms to destroy the remaining fortifications. Five Iraqis were killed during the engagement.

Searchers found caches of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles– an unpleasant surprise for the Seahawk pilots who had flown near the platforms during the past two days. Navy demolition teams destroyed the remaining weapons and long-range radio equipment.

As Navy A-6 Intruders pounded Iraqi minelayers on Jan. 22, Nicholas and her Seahawks were again busy in the northern Persian Gulf. As the northernmost allied ship, Nicholas launched her helicopters to attack Iraqi patrol boats operating less than a mile from the Kuwaiti coast. In the battle that followed, Seahawk gunners sank or heavily damaged all four enemy craft. The following day, A-6s hit the mark again, disabling an Iraqi tanker used to gather intelligence, an enemy hovercraft and another Iraqi patrol boat.

The frigate proved its capability to operate close to the shore as it provided security for merchant convoys and replenishment groups, yet bringing its “thunder and lightning” to multiply fleet force resources.

USS Nicholas, the star of the Battle of Ad-Dawrah, was decommissioned March 17, 2014. In fact, when the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Ad-Dawrah rolls around in January 2016, there will be no Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates in the U.S. Navy – earlier this month USS Kauffman (FFG 59) departed for what will be the final deployment for the ship and for the class. A decommissioning is scheduled for sometime in September.

Still the value of the surface force’s ability to control the seas, so ably demonstrated by Nicholas at Ad-Dawrah, is not lost on today’s Navy leaders.

Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, Commander, Naval Surface Forces

“A shift is now under way within the surface force. It is not subtle, and it is not accidental,” wrote Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, in an article for the Jan. 2015 edition of Proceedings Magazine.  “The surface force is taking the offensive, to give the operational commander options to employ naval combat power in any anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment.”

“The surface fleet will always defend the high-value and mission-essential units; that is in our core doctrine. However, the emergence of sophisticated sea-denial strategies has driven a need to shift to an offensive imperative to control the seas. Increasing surface-force lethality—particularly in our offensive weapons and the concept of operations for surface action groups (SAGs)—will provide more strike options to joint-force commanders, provide another method to seize the initiative, and add battlespace complexity to an adversary’s calculus,” he wrote.

After the Cold War, Rowden said no navy could challenge or dominate the United States.

“No power could match us at sea, and that dominance allowed the Navy to focus on projecting power ashore. The balance between sea control and power projection tipped strongly in favor of the latter, and the surface force evolved accordingly. Our proficiency in land-attack and maritime-security operations reached new heights, while foundational skills in antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and antisurface warfare (ASUW) slowly began to erode,” Rowden wrote.

Called “distributed lethality” Rowden believes the surface force must develop and build stronger, more varied offensive capability in its ships, adding more power in more places and sailing together in formations known as “hunter-killer surface action groups.”

“If U.S. naval power is to reclaim maritime battlespace dominance in contemporary and future anti-A2/AD environments,” said Rowden in the Proceedings article, “the surface Navy must counter rapidly evolving missile, air, submarine, and surface threats that will challenge our ability to sail where we want, when we want.”

*Check out the Navy Live Blog for a post from U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Adm. John Miller about the importance of partnerships in his AOR during Desert Storm and today.