- - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The recent release of the investigative report on the “surrender” of two U.S. Navy heavily armed, 48-foot Riverine Coastal Patrol Boats in the North Arabian Sea on Jan. 12 to slightly smaller, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy center-console fishing-type boats was more than an embarrassment for the Navy. The details of the extensive five-month investigative report indicate a much more symptomatic problem: the destruction of our warrior mentality. The mental toughness that should have been embedded in all officers given the privilege to command was clearly lacking in this incident. Like it or not, more than 240 years of U.S. Navy customs and traditions were thrown overboard with the surrender of our patrol boats without a shot being fired. This tragedy cannot be dismissed as old news or ignored.

The circumstances leading up to the engagement and surrender of the two patrol boats is more than troubling. The fact that the patrol boats deviated from their planned track, developed engine problems during the transit, plus a whole host of other well-documented, unprofessional actions by the on-scene commander and his immediate chain of command, is immaterial to the core issue — the warfare character of the commander and his crew.

Over the course of our history, and certainly since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, we have witnessed many heroic acts of bravery by our military forces against our enemies. Many times this has been against superior, overwhelming forces. There is no finer fighting force in the world than the U.S. military when they are permitted to carry out their mission without political restraints being imposed on them. In this particular incident, we witnessed the cumulative effect of President Obama’s accommodation policies toward our sworn enemy, Iran. This has been further compounded by the social engineering mandates that have been imposed on our military forces. It has adversely affected unit integrity, cohesiveness and the “will to win.”

In what should be considered a hostile region, the Persian Gulf — with its ongoing land conflict and the fact that Iran has been at war with America for more than 35 years — the commander and his crews were totally unprepared to meet Iranian naval forces en route to their destination, Bahrain. Iran has conducted many hostile and threatening actions against our forces in the Persian Gulf with essentially no response by the United States. The fact that this continues is due in part to the restrictive rules of engagement imposed on all our forces operating in the region. These rules of engagement have had the effect of neutralizing our superior military capability. Iran, along with our other adversaries, clearly interpret this as political weakness, and it only emboldens them to take more aggressive actions. We clearly have been subjected to recent unprofessional and hostile actions against our forces operating in the Baltic and South China Sea by Russia and China.

The limitations on our willingness to respond is well understood by the Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. In this incident, the Iranians showed no hesitation or fear when they approached our larger and more heavily armed patrol boats, and immediately unmasked their weapons and trained them on the boats. There is no question that the commander should have had his crews man their weapons and been prepared to firing warning shots, or use more deadly force to get the patrol boats out of the area. However, he was under the impression that the existing rules of engagement precluded him from firing unless the Iranians fired first. According to the investigative report, these restrictive rules did not apply in this engagement.

Courageously, some crew members were prepared to fight, and manned their weapons, but were told by the commander to “stand down” and back away from their weapons. In my view, had the commander displayed a “war fighting toughness” to use force, our two patrol boats would not have been captured. However, he never even tried. It is similar to our failure to even respond to the attack on our Special Mission Compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. We never even tried.

The commander’s excuse for surrendering his command was that he didn’t want to start a war with Iran or disrupt President Obama’s nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, the latter of which was to go in effect on Jan. 16. Further, when the Iranians showed up with two more boats, he felt our forces were outnumbered and, therefore, he had no option but to surrender. This was unacceptable. At that point, he failed to lead his crew in upholding the traditions of the U.S. Navy, the strongest Navy in the world. “Don’t give up the ship.” These are hallowed words declared by Captain James Lawrence as he lay dying on his frigate “Chesapeake.” Oliver Hazard Perry adopted those words as his battle slogan in the battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. This core principle has been embedded in every sailor’s DNA.

Once captured, the commander and several crew members brought further disgrace on the U.S. Navy by violating the Code of Conduct. What’s clear is that this incident highlights the need for retraining personnel in the Navy’s core principles and Code of Conduct. It should be clear that time spent on “sensitivity” and “political correctness” training does not impress the enemy.

James A. Lyons, a U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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