Military officers are privately questioning the decision to schedule a stop for the USS Cole at a fueling port in Yemen, a known safe haven for Arab terrorists for whom suicide bombings are trademarks.
“I think it’s buffoonery that a U.S. warship is refueling in Yemen while things are coming apart in Jerusalem,” said a Marine Corps officer in Washington who has deployed to the Persian Gulf. “The place is a snake pit. I can’t believe we are sending U.S. warships there, especially when there is so much unrest in the region.”
A senior retired Navy officer said, “As the force has been stretched too thin, it requires commanders to change some operational behavior, not always to the advantage of the United States Navy.”
The destroyer Cole’s mission typifies how a busy Navy shifts assets to cover two theaters the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The Cole was part of a battle group led by the aircraft carrier George Washington and would normally be refueled at sea with its sister ships.
But the Cole broke off from the group and was traveling alone through the Red Sea. U.S. Central Command, which oversees Gulf operations, wanted the Cole to replace a Tomahawk-missile-firing ship which was leaving the region.
A Navy spokesman said battle groups often break up, sending ships to both theaters in response to tensions in the Balkans and the Gulf.
The military’s readiness woes have gone front and center in the presidential campaign. Republican George W. Bush argues that a decade of budget cuts and increased deployments have left the armed forces worn out and ill equipped.
One issue is whether the Navy’s 315-ship fleet is sufficient to carry out far-flung deployments in the Pacific, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and other hot spots.
Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, said at the Pentagon yesterday that the Navy is short on the type of oiler that can refuel the Cole and other warships at sea.
“We do not have enough ships to assign one to this ship was transiting independently and we don’t have enough resources to …,” Adm. Clark said before cutting short his sentence. “Let me say today I have 101 ships in the United States Navy deployed to the four corners of the earth. Cole is one of those 101.”
Adm. Clark recently told the House and Senate Armed Services committees that the Navy is not building enough ships to maintain the current 315-ship fleet. Navy experts say ships are going to sea without critical working components and, in some cases, remaining deployed longer than the normal six months.
Adm. Clark, the former Atlantic fleet commander, said the shortage of oilers the Navy has 23 means a refueling ship has never been assigned to a single ship such as the Cole.
“They don’t have as many as they need for the pace of operations,” said A.D. Baker III, a naval analyst.
But Mr. Baker said the real issue is port security. For diplomatic reasons, the U.S. Navy does not provide adequate topside security as a ship enters a foreign harbor, he said.
Pentagon officials say explosives, detonated by two men in small boat alongside the Cole, blew a huge hole in the destroyer’s hull. Six sailors were killed, 11 more were missing and presumed dead, and 35 were injured.
The Clinton-Gore administration inherited a fleet of more than 500 ships. In 1993, it announced a plan to shrink the armada to 346. But eventually, even that floor was breached as the defense budget tumbled during the 1990s.
Pentagon officials said refueling stops in Yemen were started by U.S. Central Command in July 1999 as a way to establish strategic relations with a generally U.S.-friendly Yemeni government. The Cole’s stop was the 12th for a U.S. warship.
The administration is trying to maintain support among Gulf nations such as Yemen for its policy of isolating Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein.
Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said Central Command officials have talked of prepositioning fuel and equipment in Yemen.
“The Yemeni government has pledged, and by all accounts been extremely cooperative in attempting to prevent” Yemen-based terrorist attacks against the United States, he said. “They do not support acts of terrorism like this.”
Still, Mr. Katzman said there are parts of Yemen not fully controlled by the government. His report on international terrorism, along with the State Department’s, states that while Yemen does not sponsor terrorism, it is a safe haven for terrorist groups.
The Palestinian Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad both have official representatives in Yemen, and both groups have conducted suicide bombings. In addition, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group also have members and sympathizers in Yemen.
“Lax and inefficient enforcement of security procedures and the government’s inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country continue to make the country a safe haven for terrorist groups,” the State Department’s current report on global terrorism said.