Here’s a little bit of relatively unknown South African Navy history. Did you know that the colossal USS Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier was harassed by the South African Navy using two small strike-craft in January 1980?
It is a little like a David vs. Goliath story for the relatively small South African Navy to take the wind out of the sails of the gigantic US aircraft carrier’s escort – the USS California some 15-20 nautical miles ahead of the carrier. It led to a very high tense moment on the high seas and an international outcry, and we have evidence of the incident – this remarkable photograph was taken by Joe Johnson, the Navigator on the SAS Jan Smuts, a South African Strike-craft and it shows just how ‘up close and personal’ they were with the American super carrier the USS Nimitz off South Africa’s coastline.
So what happened that found two South African strike-craft inside the Minitz’s defensive screen harassing this US task force. Well, it boils down to two things, South Africa’s 200 nautical mile (370km) economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and a very unique strike craft ‘special force’ ethos.
High Seas Harassment
On the 4th Jan 1980, the USS Nimitz sailed in response to the Iranian crisis, leading a nuclear-powered battle group including the USS California and the USS Texas from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean . The three ships sailed out of separate Italian ports and rendezvoused, sailing at a speed of advance of 25 knots around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean to “Gonzo Station” (named by sailors serving there, supposedly deriving the term from Gulf of Oman Naval Zoo Operation).
On encountering this US Navy task force in South Africa’s economic exclusion zone waters – two ‘Minister Class’ South African Navy strike craft , Boat 1 (the SAS Jan Smuts) and Boat 5 (the SAS Frans Erasmus) manoeuvred right into the defensive screen of the USS flotilla – so much so the USS Nimitz’s escorts the USS Texas and USS California, both nuclear powered cruisers, had to alter course to avoid collision. In fact one of the South African strike craft – Boat 1, cut across the bow the of the USS California which was travelling ahead of the USS Nimitz. Whilst Boat 5 was able to move up the USS California undetected by all its modern radar until in visual range.
This action caused a massive diplomatic fury between the USA and South Africa, as much to the embarrassment of the US Navy, the South African Navy strike-craft had sailed unchallenged right through the flotilla’s defensive screen into lethal striking range of pride of the US Navy.
A true ‘David’ and his sling
To dismiss the South African strike craft with their Israeli DNA as no danger to a nuclear US Navy aircraft carrier and its escort would be folly. Boat 1, the SAS Jan Smuts had even started out as an Israelite, it was a modified Israeli ‘Reshef Class’ strike craft, built at the Haifa facility of Israeli Shipyards, under contract between the Israeli Military Industries as part of three strike craft sold to South Africa. The three Israeli craft were covertly sailed to South Africa and classified as ‘Minister Class’ strike (named after South African Ministers of Defence). Boat 5, the SAS Frans Erasmus was built under licence in South Africa to the Israeli modified Reshef Class design, along with five other ‘Minister Class’ strike craft.
Both Boat 1 and Boat 5 (and all other Minister Class strike craft for that matter) were fitted with a leading Israeli designed ship killing missile system at the time, the ‘Gabriel’ surface to surface missile and launching system. The Gabriel Mk 2, an improved version of original Gabriel was created by Israel in 1972 and entered service in the Israeli Navy in 1976. This missile system was subsequently built under license from Israel in South Africa under the name Skerpioen (in English meaning Scorpion). This little arachnid packed a big poison punch, the scorpion, then took the pride of place in the newly formatted South African strike craft flotilla’s emblem in 1977.
No small thing, this guided missile system was designed to fire a missile which skimmed the water using an altimeter hitting its target just above the water line and designed to obliterate targets, a true ‘David’ could take on a ‘Goliath’ and like the arch angel ‘Gabriel’ (after whom it was named) could bring about a biblical hell-fire – especially if brought down on a small to medium-sized ship. Each South African strike craft had 6 such scorpions in its arsenal.
Can it obliterate a true ‘Goliath’, a super carrier like the USS Nimitz? It’s not been tested on a vessel this size, but in all likelihood – possibly not. It would however cause significant damage if it had hypothetically got through the anti-missile defence systems of the Nimitz in the first place.
Nerves of steel
Did the South African Navy pose a threat to the US Navy? The obvious answer is not really. In 1980 the South African Navy did not have an aircraft carrier (it still does not), on the sharp fighting end of the assegai. South Africa had 3 relatively small Daphné-class diesel submarines, 3 ageing Frigates and 9 fast coastal protection strike craft (who were the new focus of the South African Navy in 1980, the Nationalists deeming that since Apartheid isolation there was no real need for frigates to act as ‘grey ambassadors’ on international flag showing missions).
To the commanders of the Nimitz and its escort ships, South Africa was not regarded as hostile nation in 1980, sailing within a 200nm EEZ is perfectly legal if the vessels are not involved in fishing or drilling for energy which may be deemed as in economic competition to the country to which the zone belongs. In effect a EEZ is classified as ‘International Waters’ and it must be noted that there is a big difference in maritime law between South African ‘territorial’ waters to which they have sovereignty which extend only 12nm from the coast – unlike South Africa’s 200nm EEZ. There’s also nothing to really prohibit a ‘non-hostile’ nation’s naval vessels from operating near a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier and its escort’s in their own EEZ – within reason.
The US navy normally anticipates Russian, Iranian and Chinese naval vessels which they deem as ‘hostile’ from cutting across bows of their vessels in their EEZ waters, so a ‘friendly’ South African Naval vessel risking such a manoeuvre by cutting across the bow of an US Navy vessel would have been deemed as rather usual, so too two strike craft sneaking up on them and it most certainly would have led to surprise and a tense moment on the bridge. Cutting across the bow of a ship is contrary to maritime ‘rules of the road’ and a violation of maritime standards. By not reacting to such a maneuver by a rather deadly South African ‘strike’ craft and escalating the situation the Commander of the US task force flotilla most certainly demonstrated the patience of a Saint and some nerves of steel.
Here you have to also consider that the USS Nimitz’s defensive screen would not have consisted of just the USS Texas and USS California, but also the ‘silent’ and unseen service of the US Navy’s Nuclear submarines, which are almost always nearby a aircraft carrier task force and the unseen US Navy fighter/bombers routinely launched from the Nimitz for protection and patrolling in the area.
To the Commanders of the South African Strike Craft it was a different matter entirely. As South Africa was ‘at war’ in Angola and politically at odds with United Nations and ‘the outside world’ in general over Apartheid – any foreign military shipping in South Africa’s 200nm EEZ attracted the attention of the South African Navy and the South African Air Force. This heightened state of readiness and intelligence gathering against any potential military adversity was not only directed to US Naval vessels, it was especially directed at Soviet vessels in addition – in fact as aircraft carriers go South African strike craft had already got very ‘up close and personal’ when the mighty Soviet Kiev Class ‘Minsk’ and her escorts ventured around South Africa and its 200nm EEZ in 1978.
It’s this part, ‘shadowing’ any military shipping for intelligence and demonstrating fearless and bullish ‘David versus Goliath’ testing of the defence capability of the world’s naval super-powers, which had come to define this strike craft fraternity – the ability and skill to punch well above their weight. It took special mental conditioning and discipline – and a bucket load of ‘nerves of steel’ – as a fraternity they even define themselves as a ‘iron fist from the sea’ when it came to conducting special forces operations from sea to land – and this why they saw themselves as a unique ‘special force’ in a naval context – not to be taken lightly and to be reckoned with in every respect, it’s an attitude they had to have to be as successful as they were.
Diplomatic demands from the USA for an answer from the South African government over their strike craft venturing undetected into the Nimitz’s defensive screen, cutting across the bow of the USS California and forcing both the USS Nimitz’s escorts to alter their course fell on the usual stoic National Party government to answer to – so much fuss and hot air was made of it for political appeasement, with little result.
Such diplomatic protesting fell on deaf ears within the South African Navy strike-craft circles as they saw intelligence gathering in South African waters and demonstrations of fighting prowess as their job to do, and all the diplomatic ‘ballyhoo’ simply reinforced their legacy as an elitist naval force and in fact another reason to hold up their heads in pride. So all in all, given the political circumstances of the time, the South African Navy strike personnel felt they did a great job.
To the Americans the USS Nimitz and her escorts journey from the Mediterranean around South Africa was well publicised and no secret, also sailing in 200nm exclusion zones was perfectly legal according to international maritime law and South African naval intervention was unwarranted and qualified as harassment and nothing more.
Because of the political and diplomatic fallout, the strike-craft Commanders of P1561 the ‘SAS Jan Smuts’ and P1565 the ‘SAS Frans Erasmus’ were called onto the ‘carpet’ by the top Navy brass and reprimanded, but rumour has it they where then promptly taken out to lunch to celebrate. Nobody lost their jobs and nothing more was said of it.
Operation Eagle Claw
The US Navy would also have considered this a minor incident as they had much bigger issues on their plate to deal with than maritime regulations and harassment experienced around South Africa’s coast. The USS Nimitz was rounding South Africa on its way to Iran to take part in Operation Eagle Claw (Operation Evening Light). In 1980, the Iranian Hostage crisis, a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States of America was in full swing with fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran for nearly a year starting on the 4th November 1979, something had to be done. The American President, Jimmy Carter, elected for a special forces military operation to rescue the hostages and end the crisis.
On the 24th April 1980, this special forces operation to rescue the hostages was launched from the flight deck of the USS Nimitz in eight Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters containing Navy Seal special forces personnel to much cheering and thumbs up from the Nimitz crew, but disaster loomed.
From the get go the Operation encountered many obstacles and was eventually aborted. The eight helicopters from the Nimitz were sent to the first staging area, ‘Desert One’, but only five arrived in operational condition. One encountered hydraulic problems, another was caught in a ‘Haboob’ (a sand storm) and another showed signs of a cracked rotor blade.
During planning it was decided that the mission would be aborted if fewer than six helicopters remained, despite only four being absolutely necessary. In a move that is still discussed in military circles, the field commanders advised mission abort, which President Carter accepted and confirmed. As the US rescue mission prepared to leave, they were plagued by another ‘haboob’ sandstorm and one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both American servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight US servicemen.
The failed operation took on a legendary aspect in revolutionary Iran, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, describing the sandstorms causing the failure of the mission as “angels of Allah” who foiled the US conspiracy in order to protect Iran. They then promptly erected a mosque (the Mosque of Thanks) at the crash site.
The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was a humiliating blow for the United States Presidency and its Armed Forces on the international stage. The hostages were scattered all over Iran to prevent a second rescue attempt. The Ayatollah Khomeini milked Carter’s embarrassment for all it was worth declaring;
“Who crushed Mr. Carter’s helicopters? We did? The sands did! They were God’s agents. Wind is God’s agent … These sands are agents of God. They can try again”
Then, literally minutes after President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential term ended on the 20th January 1981 the Iranians ended their humiliation of Carter by releasing the 52 US captives held in Iran, promptly ending the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.
These bigger events over shadowed the SA Navy ‘harassment’ of the US Navy issue somewhat and the story is lessor known to annuals of history, but to South Africa’s strike craft community it remains a time when they stood up as David as did and fearlessly challenged a Goliath. For all the political hot air and statements of grandeur they found weakness in the US Navy task force in 1980, and all the ‘blustering’ about US Naval size and fighting prowess aside, lessons on protecting such a flotilla from small and very lethal Israeli developed and South African perfected strike craft would hopefully have been learned.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
This great snippet of history is courtesy of Johnny Steenkamp and Joe Johnson – with deep thanks. Photo copyright of the Nimitz – Joe Johnson.
Reference: Seaforces on-line, Naval information. The South African Naval Fraternity on-line.