- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 29, 2008


In the normal course of ships operating at sea, the recognized International Collision Regulations (COLREGS) of 1960 govern ship movements when encountering other ships.

These rules apply to all vessels upon the high seas and all waters connected to the high seas and navigable by seagoing vessels. These rules that previously gained acceptance by all maritime nations were codified into standard regulations by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and adopted Oct. 20, 1972, and entered into force July 15, 1977.

All signatory countries are obligated to abide by these rules. Iran is a signatory nation. The Iranian Navy, for the most part, complies with the rules and regulations. Not so, however, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Naval craft (IRGN), which operate under a separate chain of command.

The recent incident in the vicinity of the Straits of Hormuz between IRGN craft and three U.S. navy ships transiting in international waters is a case in point. As we have seen in this incident and have learned in the past, there are circumstances when the internationally accepted IMO Collision Regulations are ignored or insufficient, particularly when one nation’s naval ships or craft operate in a deliberate unsafe or provocative manner.

During the Cold War, naval combatant ships of the Soviet Union when shadowing or operating close to deployed U.S. navy ships and carrier battle groups sometimes operated in an unsafe and provocative manner. Sometimes there were collisions and ship scraping that could have led to a serious international incident. Soviet intelligence ships, AGIs, would deliberately place themselves in the direct path of a carrier or replenishing group to harass or provoke.

As a result of these incidents, both countries recognized it would be prudent to have additional rules, communications and agreed flag signals to communicate a ship’s actual intent and movement so an incident could be prevented and not escalate out of control. These additional rules and signals were codified in what was called “The Incidents at Sea Treaty” between the U.S. and Soviet Union navies on May 25, 1972, and signed for the United States by Navy Secretary John Warner, now the senior senator from Virginia. The treaty was very effective and was used by our allies’ navies too.

With the recent incidents in the Gulf, it appears a similar set of rules and regulations incorporated in the U.S.-Soviet “Incidents at Sea Treaty” could be applied as modified for naval operations in the Gulf.

The U.S. Navy with its past experience in dealing with similar circumstances could draft a preventive “Incidents at Sea Treaty” for normal naval encounters in the Persian Gulf. Allied navies (the United Kingdom, France, Australia, et al.) would be invited to be signatories to the treaty as well as the navies of the Gulf States, including Iran.

In the era of terrorism, I believe an exclusion zone of 500 yards around destroyer type ships and 1,000 yards around carriers should be included. Exclusion zones are not novel and have been promulgated in the past by issuing “Notice to Mariners.” Such a Treaty, sponsored by the U.S. Navy, would show the world we have taken extra steps to prevent an incident.

If these additional rules and guidelines are deliberately violated, it will become very clear to all concerned the necessary defensive actions the on-scene commander was forced to take to protect his ship and crew.

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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