- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

On Jan. 5, three U.S. Navy ships were transiting the Straits of Hormuz when they were encountered by five small high-speed crafts that were assessed to belong to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy. The five boats broke into two groups, one on each side of the transiting U.S. Navy ships.

The groups maneuvered aggressively in the direction of the U.S. formation. During this approach, the Iranian craft issued a threatening radio transmission to the U.S. Navy ships, which, in effect, said the ships would explode. Further, two of the high-speed crafts were seen dropping boxes in the water in the path of the last ship in the formation. The boats continued maneuvering close astern of the formation, closing at times to less than 500 yards. They apparently paid no attention to the warnings issued by the U.S. ships.

What did the Iranians hope to accomplish by provoking this incident? Were they testing our rules of engagement? Perhaps.

I am told this is not the first such encounter. I understand there was a similar incident on Dec. 19 — a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Whidbey Island, opened fired when similar craft approached within 800 yards in the same area and they scattered. Well done.

The question remains, then, in this latest incident, why didn’t we open fire on these clearly threatening crafts, particularly after their radio transmission that the U.S. Navy ships would explode? There are standard rules as guidance for our commanding officers to follow when confronted with a threatening situation. However, the commanding officer should not be required to go through a rigid set of instructions before he can take effective action. The first action for a commanding officer is to take those actions necessary to protect his ship and crew. There should be no requirement for the on-scene commander to first report to his superior and ask for guidance. Hopefully, there is no such requirement.

We all recall the situation last March when 15 U.K. service members who were clearly in Iraqi territorial waters were captured by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy and held captive for two weeks. In that situation the on-scene commander called back to his captain who told him to offer no resistance. How embarrassing.

We had a similar situation on April 4, 2003, where four special operations craft proceeding into the Shatt al Arab waterway were surrounded by five Iranian Revolutionary Guard Naval boats with their weapons unmasked, their crew shouting obscenities.

Our on-scene commander, who was a Navy captain, called back for guidance and was told to withdraw. In the words of a highly respected Marine who was in one of the boats stated that we clearly had them outgunned and could and should have “blown them away.” A missed opportunity.

The decision on whether the aggressive actions of the speeding Iranian Revolutionary small crafts are threatening must be left with the on-the-scene commander. He must not be bound by a set of rigid rules that he must go through before he can open fire. It must be his call and he must be confident he will have the backing of his superiors in the chain of command.

Every one of my commanding officers knew he was not to take the first “hit” and that I would back him up. I put this in writing as part of what were then the rules of engagement. I hope they can still be found.

James Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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