Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thoughts On the Navy Crews Taken by the Iranians

I've been asked by a few of you to provide some thoughts on what happened in the Arabian Gulf the other day. I began to write something, and then saw this piece by my friend at Information Dissemination--and while I don't agree completely with all of it, I do agree with most of it. And so I have cut and pasted it below into this entry, with my own comments interspersed in bold italics.


Thoughts on the Farsi Island Incident January 12 by Galrahn

By now most of you have heard the news of the initial incident and have read several details of the incident that have been reported in the press. The bottom line, there are still a lot of unknowns even as the incident was resolved diplomatically within 24 hours. Below are a few thoughts.

1) Even 48 hours after the initial incident it doesn't even appear CENTCOM or the Pentagon has a full accounting of the details of exactly what happened. People who have been telling the narrative since the incident first occurred are sure to be proven wrong, since they have almost certainly been guessing as to causes and motives. In the end, it is starting to look to be exactly what it looks like... a bunch of young sailors lost because of reliance on technology and/or machinery that failed. There is also, potentially, a training issue here related to navigation and leadership.

Couldn't agree more. When the incident was first reported, I was asked by a number of different entities to comment. I hesitated to speculate beyond indicating what I knew from dated experience. We observe their territorial standoffs meticulously, and they enforce them meticulously.  I could see no profit for the Iranians in seizing our boats/crews unless they had stumbled into Iranian waters. Note I'm not supporting what Iran did or saying that it was professional or legal. Simply that this was to me, the most likely scenario.

2) Those who are claiming the US Navy should have shot their way out of the standoff - when it appears the US Navy sailors actually involved appeared to have convinced themselves their ships were inside Iranian waters - make very interesting and yet terrible arguments for shooting at Iranians. Farsi Island may be a disputed Island in the Persian Gulf, but there is an IRGC naval base on that island and presence in the first rule of ownership. If the Iranian Navy, or Russian Navy, or any Navy drifted armed boats into US waters off Kings Bay, I suspect the US Coast Guard and/or US Navy would be very quick to point guns and be active in detaining the drifters.

Again, agreed. We are not at war with Iran, and it was plausible that those crews KNEW they had made this mistake. Additionally, as is stated above, there is an Iranian base at Farsi. My suspicion is that there was a firepower differential on the scene. 

3) I am unable to see any strategic advantage the US would have gained by fighting Iran inside the 3 mile zone of Iranian territory, and I am unable to see any strategic consequence to the US by not fighting Iran inside the 3 mile zone of Iranian territory. However, had the US Navy tried to shoot their way out of that situation, the strategic consequences would have been significant, and not just how it relates to Iran. Such a violent action would have given China a valid example to act the same way in disputed places in the South China Sea. If the US Navy is going to lead the global commons based on our interpretation of the rules at sea, the LT who apologized (and everyone on the political right is flogging) just forwarded America strategically. I note it is primarily the parochial arguments from people whose expertise lies in other military services like the Army who have completely ignored the details like global rule sets at sea who have been the loudest to shout at the Navy in this incident. With all due respect, this is an incredibly parochial and shortsided overreaction of the incident, because the National Review can and should do better than finding an Army guy - Bing West (whom I know and respect but wtf...) when it comes to a complex naval incident. This isn't the Pueblo, nor is it the Korean War. There will be no museum in Iran, and both the boats and the crews were returned.

Here is where I disagree with my friend. While I certainly do not believe the Lieutenant should be "flogged" by people on the right or anywhere else for that matter, his onscreen apology was imprudent. Note again, I did not say a violation of the code of conduct--as the code of conduct applies to when we are held as prisoners of war--which he and they knew they were not. But--he should not have said what he did--no matter how true it was. The only acceptable (to me) explanation for his conduct would have been if he had received ORDERS from higher headquarters as this thing went down, to make an apology. 

4) This is one of those difficult issues that, in my mind, separates serious people who care about serious strategic issues the US faces in the 21st century and demagogues who see conspiracy and opportunity in every political crisis. If you are a partisan who sees a conspiracy, go away. For the rest of us, there are serious naval issues here that need serious answers. These are a few of the initial questions that should be considered.

- Is the maintenance of the riverine command boats contracted to the point the onboard crew was unable to repair the problem? The crew of only 5 sailors per boat suggests to me that something might be off with the manpower and maintenance procedures surrounding these very capable chess pieces of naval equipment. The RCB is made to fight in the Persian Gulf, but a broken RCB isn't going to win.

 - This is a teaching moment if there ever was one, and as an incident this appears to represent a textbook case study on the reasons why the Navy needs more, not fewer, Commands for junior officers. It may be the opinion of some hard core political demagogues who have over a decade of tactical success combined with over a decade of strategic failure that this incident is somehow a defeat for America, but each new fact that emerges from this incident suggests to me this may be a case of procedural failure far beyond the scope of a LT... but when shit happened, strategic acumen by the officer in charge (LT) is potentially emerging as a feature in handling a bad situation and not making it worse. The facts are still unknown, and we may not know for sure for awhile, but regardless of what the facts are in the end I see this as a very teachable moment that favors the argument for early Command as often as possible for junior officers.

- I have no problem with high profile diplomatic incidents like this between the US Navy and Iran, as long as for each incident the actions of the US Navy is aligned with the strategic aims of the United States. If the US Navy had attacked the IRGC inside the territorial waters of Farsi Island to defend their boats, this would be a major strategic setback for the US. Had the incident occurred outside the territorial waters of Iran and the US Navy not fought back; that would also be a strategic setback for the US. Right now it appears the US Navy sailors on the scene did everything right.

- The only way to produce a genuine strategic failure from this incident is to unfairly punish those involved, in other words... if the Navy wants better commanders, handle early career mistakes the right way. Tell me how any of those 10 sailors are somehow worse off for this incident. If legitimate mistakes were made, deal with it appropriately, but pinning blame for things out of their control would be a failure of leadership, and in my mind an unforgivable sin.

- At the end of the day, this was a real diplomatic test of the US and Iran who under the recent agreement are partners in Iran's nuclear energy ambitions. The outcome is very positive for the United States. I don't trust the government of Iran, but I am yet to see anything from this incident that suggests to me Iran has has been inappropriate. If you're the American Idiot who doesn't think it was appropriate for the US Navy sailors to have their hands on their heads at any point in the engagement near the IRGC base on Farsi Island, try drifting your private armed boat into the US Navy area of Kings Bay or Norfolk or New London and pretend like there is a snowballs chance in hell you will get out of there without your hands on your head. You will have your hands on your head, or if you point a gun back at the US Navy or US Coast Guard, you will be shot dead by very serious people who protect that location and will be pointing guns at you. You don't even have to be an Iranian for that outcome to occur, nor will you need an Iranian flag on your boat, a US flag will result in the same action. Wake up people, don't let the silly season control your ability to think with objectivity.

It is entirely plausible to me that the recent deal with the Iranians and the familiarity it bred among negotiators aided in the relatively quick release of our Sailors. One would be ignorant not to at least consider this. But--one should also consider the possibility that the negotiation bred a familiarity that we did not bargain for, that we had been measured and found wanting. That the Iranians believed that they could do this with little or no fallout, and that their position as a power in the Arabian Gulf would be improved by taking us on. It would be just as ignorant not to consider this possibility, and others for that matter. 

As for the Sailors on their knees and the female in hijab, the bottom line for me is that when rough men with guns are pointing them at you, in virtually all cases you do what you are told. 

I look forward to learning what really happened, because at the end of the day we have a well armed naval craft in the middle of the Persian Gulf with a serious mechanical problem that couldn't be quickly resolved apparently combined with some incredibly bad navigation from two crews who somehow found their way to the only piece of land between their departure location and destination that could create a diplomatic problem. When you swim past all the political bullshit, the serious naval specific issues on the table leave a lot of serious questions that deserve serious answers.

What my friend describes as "political bullshit" I am not as quick to dismiss. It is difficult for me to separate Iran's willingness to tweak us, their willingness to fire rockets in the vicinity of our aircraft carrier--with their sense that these actions would be impact free, born of a lack of regard for our power. There are serious "naval" issues here of course--but there are also serious political ones--and in the end, the two will almost certainly be related.

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