Orions of Arabia

The following is a re-print of an article from NAVAL AVIATION NEWS September-October 1991


Orions of Arabia
Patrol Squadrons in Desert Shield/Storm
By LCdr. Rick Burgess

The following account is consolidated from articles and press releases from LCdr. Mike L’Abbe (PAO, Commander Patrol Wings, Atlantic), Ens. Chinastas Mangronos (PAO, Commander Patrol Wing One), and LTjg. Jake Elston and Ens. Randy Schriver of VP-1 and VP-4.


In Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the job of the US Naval forces deployed in support of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) was tremendously simplified by the total lack of submariner’s in the Iraqi Navy. However, the U.S. Navy’s patrol squadrons (VPs) did not sit idle during operations for lack of a mission; in fact, their performance in the antishipping and surveillance role in support of the economic sanctions and battle group operations is the story of one qualified success.

First on the Scene

When Iraqi forces rolled into Kuwait on August 2, 1990, VP-1, home based at NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, was settled into a routine deployment to NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines, with a detachment in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Within 48 hours, some of the squadrons P3-C Orions were positioned to an airfield on Al Masirah, an island off the coast of Oman, with the rest of the squadron redeploying from Cubi to Diego Garcia. There, VP-1’s CO, Cmdr. Bill Eckardt, became Commander Task Group (CTG) 72.8, and the XO Cmdr. J. H. Miller, established Task Unit 72.8.3 at Al Masirah. VP-1’s crews were the first American forces to arrive in the Persian Gulf region to augment the six ships of the Middle East Force.

The P-3s immediately began surveillance flights to enforce economic sanctions against Iraq. When the independence (CV – 62) battle group arrived in the North Arabian Sea on August 6, the detachment quickly blended its operations with the battle group. A Mobile Operations Command Center (MOCC) was transported from Barbers Point to Al Masirah and set up in a tent to serve as the focal point of the maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) operations in the Persian Gulf. P-3C Update I aircraft and crews from VP-19, deployed to NAF Misawa, Japan, from NAS Moffett Field, California, arrived in short order to augment VP-1. 12 days after the invasion, another attachment was established in Jeddah, a base on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Jeddah would serve as the base for surveillance patrols of the Red Sea.


From Al Masirah and Jeddah the P-3s ranged all over the Persian Gulf and Red Sea as key elements of the Maritime Interdiction Force, locating and identifying shipping and vectoring coalition warships to interceptions, often involving inspection and boarding. These operations were successfully blended with Royal Air Force Nimrod and French Aeronvale Atlantique MPA, which were also deployed to the region in support of Desert Shield. The radar and infrared detection sets (IRDS) on the P-3s became important sensors in the interdiction effort. Regarding one ship, the IRDS was able to detect painted out Iraqi markings under newly painted false Egyptian markings foiling the deception effort. P-3s were also used to escort convoys from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea, and to provide antiterrorist protection to the battle groups at night. P-3 crews used handheld VHF radios to interrogate thousands of merchant ships on their identities and cargoes “it was like dialing an international operator and asking for anywhere – you knew English was going in, but you never knew what language was going to come out,” according to AW3 Darrell Wooley.

During desert shield the combined efforts of coalition MPA patrols resulted in the interception of over 6,300 ships. In one highly publicized incident Barak attempted to label the supply ship Ibn Khaldoon a “peace ship” in order to circumvent the embargo. P-3s tracked this vessel continually, leading to its boarding by the crew of a U.S. Navy warship.

Atlantic Augment

On September 23, 1990, CENTCOM requested and MPA augment from the U.S. Atlantic Command. NAS Brunswick, Main based VP-23, maintaining a detachment at NAS Bermuda, was ordered to send a detachment to Jeddah. Three P-3C Update IIs, led by VP-23 C.O., Commander Brown Word, were positioned at King Faisal Naval Base to relieve the VP-1 detachment at Jeddah. With this change, operational command of the det. now named Detachment Charlie, came under Rear Admiral Peter Cressy, Commander Task Force 67. On October 31, VP-11, then deployed to NAS Sigonella, Sicily, sent a detachment of P-3C Update II.5s under Lieutenant Commander William Martin to Jeddah to relive the VP-23 det. by then Lieutenant Commander Joseph Julius. As part of normal rotation, VP-8 relieved VP-11 at Sigonella and on December 7 assumed operation of Detachment Charlie. VP-8’s P-3C Update II.5s, under Lieutenant Commander Mark Kirk and Later Lieutenant Commander Paul Hulley, remained the core of the detachment throughout Desert Storm.

The interdiction effort was not limited to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Tracking shipping of interest in the Mediterranean was a major activity of VP-11 and later VP-8 from Sigonella, as well as the P-3C Update IIIs of VP-45 and later VP-5, deployed to Rota, Spain, from NAS Jacksonville, Fla.

Building for the Storm

As Desert Shield proceeded, the MPA force in the Middle East was changing and growing. By late August Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron (VQ) 1 established an EP-3E detachment at Bahrain. By mid-September, a detachment from Barbers Point based Patrol Special Projects Unit (VPU) 2 arrived in theater with reconnaissance-specialized P-3s (VPU-1 at Brunswick would also send P3’s later to the Gulf region). On November 10, as a normal rotation, Barbers Point based VP-4 (with P-3C Update I’s) relieved VP -1 at Diego Garcia and Al Masirah. VP-4 C.O. Commander Bob Cunningham, took over CTG 72.8 and his X.O. Commander Carlos Badger, assumed the det. at Al Masirah. VP-19 continued its augment from Misawa, and additional P-3C Update IIIs and crews from Moffett Field based VPs 40 and 46 also joined in, as well as one plane and crew from each of the reserve units VP-91 and VP Master Augment Unit, Moffett. The MOCC at Al Masirah was beefed up with watch officers, intelligence specialist, and support personnel from Diego Garcia and reserve unit ASWOC-1080 from Moffett field. Captain Phil Lenfant, Commander Task Force 72, Seventh Fleet’s operational commander for the MPA, exercised command over the force.

By January 1991, with the number of carrier battle groups deployed to the theater about to increase from four to six, the MP a force in the region was well exercise than ready for the storm to come. On January 4 round-the-clock surveillance missions in the northern Persian Gulf began. Using radar and special optical sensors, P-3s were used to pinpoint military targets along the Iraqi and Kuwaiti coasts.

Lethal Partnership

When the war began on January 17, P-3s were providing 65 hours of support per day for the battle groups in the Persian Gulf. In addition to defensive surveillance for the battle groups, P-3s went on the offensive and formed a “lethal partnership” with the carrier base strike aircraft that scourged the Iraqi Navy.

Some of the P-3s operating the Gulf were equipped with the APS-137 inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), which not only detects targets over the horizon but provides images of the target in sufficient detail for the operator to classify the type. ISAR proved especially effective in detecting small craft in the coastal waterways and among the oil rigs the clutter the Gulf. Combining ISAR information with highly accurate locating data from the Global Positioning System made for extremely valid target solutions. Positioned in the northern Gulf, ISAR equipped P-3s routinely detected Iraqi vessels, informed the battle group commander using the P-3s extensive communication suite, and often vectored A-6 and FA-18 jets in for the kill. This model hunter killer coordination in 31 separate engagements resulted in the confirm destruction of 53 of the 105 Iraqi vessels put out of action during the war.

During one 34 hour period, P-3s provided the detection and target locating information that resulted in a substantial reduction in the Iraqi Navy’s offense of capability. A group of 15 Iraqi vessels heading for Maridim Island, an outpost in Kuwaiti hands was detected by VP-4s Crew Five, who vectored strike aircraft against the force, resulting in five ships sunk and seven more damaged. This effort ended what would be Iraqis last seaborne assault.

Hours later, VP-4s Crew 2 detected a group of Iraqi vessels attempting a rapid transit from Iraqi ports around Bubiyan Island, apparently trying to reach the safety of Iranian territorial waters. P-3s from VPs 4, 19, and 45 provided the target locations for the strike aircraft which destroyed 11 Iraqi vessels in what has been named the Battle of Bubiyan.

The Orions were also used in a variety of other roles, including mine hunting and tracking the physicians of oil slicks in the Persian Gulf.

“When’s the Next Launch?”

The pace of were meant a grueling flight schedule, but the VP detachments never missed a sortie, eight tribute to the superb efforts of maintenance personnel operating from limited facilities at the end of a long supply chain. The dedication of the VP detachment personnel was noted with pleasure by Cdr. Cunningham: “I have never been prouder of any group of airmen – both officer and enlisted – as these of Task Group 72.8… they proved themselves in the skies above the Gulf. When they landed all they want to know was when their next launch was!”.

From the outbreak of hostilities on January 17 until the provisional cease-fire on February 27, the VP detachments flew 3,787 hours in 369 combat sorties. The end of the fighting did not mean an end to patrols, however. The detachments remain in place providing shipping surveillance to enforce the sanctions. As during Desert Shield VP-17 relieved VP-4 at Al Masirah in May, and VP-10 took over Detachment Charlie from VP-8 in June. VP-5 has also supplied aircraft and crews to Detachment Charlie.

Maritime patrol operations during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm proved to be a paragon of flexibility, providing the vital link between the antisurface warfare commander and his strike forces. Rear Admiral Ronald Zlatoper, Antisurface Warfare Commander for Battle Force Zulu in the Persian Gulf, congratulated the MPA forces for their achievements: “… You contributed directly to the destruction of the Iraqi Navy by detecting, identifying, and targeting hostile surface contacts. Your continuous operations were critical to the offensive operations of Battle Force Zulu during Operation Desert Storm.”

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