Thursday, January 14, 2016

Adrift

Tehran has released 10 American sailors who were detained yesterday, after one of their patrol boats became disabled in the Persian Gulf and drifted into Iranian waters near Farsi Island.

Secretary of State John Kerry praised the quick release, offering it as proof of the "new" relationship between Iran and the United States.  Mr. Kerry said our personnel were "Well treated by the Iranians, and provided food and blankets.  We can only imagine how a similar situation would have played out three or four years ago."  Predictably, the Secretary failed to mention that four Americans are still being held by Iran, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.  

Critics also noted that Washington is preparing to end sanctions against the Tehran regime and will soon release $150 billion in frozen Iranian assets.  Put another way, the mullahs had billions of reasons to release the U.S. sailors.

But not before engaging in a bit of predictable propaganda.  About the time the release was announced, Iranian news agencies produced photos of the American sailors, just before they were taken into custody:
















  Crew members of US Navy patrol boat in the Persian Gulf, as they were being arrested by Iran  on 12 January (Iranian press photo)

Never mind that publishing such photos is against the Geneva Convention.  Tehran will never pass on an opportunity to humiliate the United States and if our military members are involved, that's icing on the cake.  Incidentally, State Department spokesman John Kirby told Sean Hannity Wednesday night that the Iranian photos are not in violation of the convention, since the U.S. and Iran aren't officially at war. Given Tehran's actions towards America over the last 35 years--directly and through its proxies--one could make the case that Kirby is myopic at best, and delusional at worst.  

And if that wasn't enough, Iran also released video of one of the captured sailors "apologizing" for the incident.  More than likely, the service member in the video is a junior officer; watching his eyes and body language, he appears to be under duress.  We can only imagine what the IRGC threatened if he didn't provide the apology.  As someone observed on Twitter, this is what happens when BuPers (the Navy's personnel command) keeps cancelling your slot at Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school.  It's quite possible the petty officer in the video was untrained for this type of situation and tried to muddle through as best he could.

The patrol boat incident is merely the latest example of concerted Iranian efforts to embarrass United States and highlight the weakness of President Obama.  Last October, with the ink still drying on the nuclear deal, Tehran conducted a missile test that was in clear violation of existing protocols.  At last report, the White House was attempting to delay additional sanctions for that launch.

And on December 26th, as the USS Harry Truman and its escorts transited the Strait of Hormuz, Iran suddenly announced a live-fire exercise and launched rockets only 1,500 yards from the aircraft carrier.  U.S. officials did not announce the incident until several days later, after the Truman returned to the Arabian Sea.

Iran also had the carrier in its cross-hairs yesterday, as the patrol boat episode unfolded.  A senior Iranian naval officer said the Truman and other allied ships began "maneuvering" as the American sailors were detained.  The Iranian admiral also claimed that his country's anti-ship missiles were "locked on" to the Truman as the disabled U.S. patrol boats drifted towards his country's territorial waters.

As we've noted in previous posts, locking onto a target (typically) involves fire control radars, which are detected by ESM systems on U.S. ships and aircraft.  Being locked on by the military forces of a hostile power is considered an act of war, and allows the targeted platform to defend itself.  There is no word on how the Truman responded to that highly provocative act, though it's a fair bet that our response was benign.  Remember, this is the same commander-in-chief who sent a 45-minute warning to ISIS oil truck drivers before we started bombing their rigs.  Rest assured, Mr. Obama doesn't want some military commander in the Persian Gulf disrupting the new rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.          

So Iran scores another major propaganda victory while the U.S. again looks timid and weak.  It doesn't take a foreign policy guru to understand that Iran will only be emboldened by this latest episode and new provocations are just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, there are a few serious questions surrounding the incident that remain unanswered.  The two patrol boats (actually, Swedish-built CB-90s) were transiting from Kuwait to Bahrain when one (or both) of the vessels suffered a mechanical breakdown.  Eventually, the boats drifted into Iranian territorial waters near Farsi Island, where they were detained by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The most direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain is along the western side of the Persian Gulf; Farsi Island is more centrally located.  If the boats were following a direct route, they must have drifted for some time before reaching the Iranian-controlled island.  If only one vessel was affected by the engineering casualty, why didn't the second boat take it under tow?  Why weren't additional assets--including airpower--dispatched by 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain?  The presence of Navy helicopters and F/A-18s overhead might have caused the Iranians to think twice.

And what about distress calls from the CB-90s to Navy command elements?  Early reports suggested the Navy "lost track" of its assets.  Perhaps someone can explain why the vast surveillance assets of the United States Navy couldn't maintain radio and/or radar contact with a pair of patrol boats--or provide warning of Iranian activity.  Major surface combatants (along with airborne assets) give the Navy an impressive SIGINT capability on the high seas; assuming we were tracking Iranian activities, it would be nice to know what information commanders had as the episode unfolded and how it impacted their decision-making.

There are also issues involving the commander of the boat element, believed to be the junior officer who issued the on-camera apology.  Why did he offer no resistance when the Iranians began boarding his craft.  Article II of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct states "I will never surrender of my own free will.  If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they have the means to resist."  A CB-90 is heavily armed, with .50-caliber machine guns, GAU-19 mini guns and individual weapons for the crew.  Obviously, no officer wants to see his command slaughtered; on the other hand, would it have been possible for the crew to resist, particularly with air support?

It's also worth asking about the level of involvement by senior officials in Washington.  Press accounts suggest that Secretary of State John Kerry was involved in the earliest contacts with Iran and spoke with his counterpart in Tehran no long after the sailors were detained.  That quick response suggests the White House and State received early notification of the incident (reflecting the desired level of coordination).  But it also begs another essential question: were senior officials micro-managing the episode from Washington, and decided early on to avoid a confrontation with Tehran at all costs.

Obviously, this latest episode did nothing to inspire confidence among our long-time allies in the Persian Gulf.  Writing in the New York Observer, John Schindler notes that our latest Middle East debacle will provoke more saber rattling between Riyadh and Tehran.  The stage is already set for a major regional conflict between the traditional foes, and the specter of a nuclear war is very real.  At best, the recently-concluded agreement with Iran will only delay its nuclear ambitions.  If Tehran is running a parallel, covert development program, the timeline for an Iranian bomb may be much shorter. 

And, as Dr Schindler notes, the Iranians can also acquire a nuke via "express delivery" from North Korea.  He refers to the frequent flights by Iran and North Korean IL-76 transports between those two countries, a subject we've written about on multiple occasions.  An IL-76 is more than capable of carrying a finished nuke from Pyongyang to Iran, and given the effective deception measures employed by both countries, our intelligence community could easily miss the delivery.

Across the gulf, Riyadh has its own emergency nuke plan.  The kingdom was a key investor in Pakistan's nuclear program, in exchange for potential deliveries of weapons to Saudi Arabia if the need arises.  With Iran moving inexorably towards a nuclear capability (and America in full retreat across the region), the window for the Saudis acquiring their own nuclear arsenal is wide open.  As one DoD official told Schindler: "if Tehran announces on Monday they have a nuke, Riyadh will 'suddenly' have one by Wednesday.

As any mariner will tell you, the danger with drifting is that you wind up in places and situations you don't want to be.  Sadly, U.S. policy in the Middle East resembles those two disabled patrol boats: adrift and heading for dangerous, uncharted waters.  Meanwhile, the man on the bridge, "Captain" Obama is waiting for his change-of-command ceremony, more than willing to let his successor sort the mess out in 2017 and beyond.                              



        


11 comments:

Bill Merry Jr. said...

The Pentagon came out yesterday and said that the sailors had mad a navigational error. It's pretty hard to believe that both boats would have made this "error". A quick look at a map of the Persian Gulf tells you that that error would not have been just a few degrees off but a lot more. Bottom line I don't believe it. Any more thoughts?

Nate Hale said...

Bill: the notion of two boats breaking down at the same time was difficult enough to believe; blaming it on a navigation error strains credulity, at best.

To be fair, the Swedish-built patrol craft don't function well in the hot climate of the Persian Gulf, and breakdowns do occur. That's one reason the boats carry tow lines and can pull the other if an engineering casualty occurs. And if both somehow broke down, abort the mission, get on the radio and request assistance. Something the size of a patrol craft could be pulled by a helicopter until other vessels arrived on scene.

The idea of a navigational error is ludicrous. Both vessels were equipped with GPS and I'll bet you a cold one that every sailor on those boats had a smart phone with a built-in GPS. If the Iranians were employing GPS jammers (not out of the question), there's always the old stand-by of breaking out the charts and navigating by the sun and stars. The lieutenant in charge is a graduate of the USNA. All middies are required to take and pass courses in boat handling and navigation. Did this guy forget everything he learned at "The Boat School?" He certainly didn't inspire confidence with his on-camera apology and you can see the look of disgust on the faces of his fellow sailors.

My theory? The riverine boats support Navy special ops on a regular basis. I think the boats were heading to a rendezvous (or had just completed one) with SEALs embarked on a mini-sub or semi-submersible. The breakdown occured and the officer in charge elected to drift away from the area, to avoid calling attention to the real purpose behind the mission. BTW, I have no proof to support this theory. But it is rather curious there were no apparent distress calls or requests for assistance from the patrol craft.

Of course, that begs an obvious question: why would there be a SEAL rendez-vous or drop-off during daylight hours? Maybe there was some sort of SF support msn and it occurred before sunrise; the breakdown occurred later and the boats began to drift.

If that wasn't the case, we're left with an episode of stunning incompetence and cowardice--and not among the sailors on the boats. If you small craft go missing, why weren't search planes/helos dispatched? Again, the lack of apparent radio traffic is rather curious, suggesting the patrol boats had "another" mission and were instructed to maintain radio silence at all costs.

A far, far different response that what occurred in 1988, when the Iranians put mines in the shipping lanes and one struck the USS Samuel Roberts, a frigate. No sailors were killed, but President Reagan ordered an immediate response. Within hours, the Navy attacked and destroyed two oil rigs; four small craft and an Iranian frigate. It was the largest surface action for the USN since World War II.

Ed Marek said...

Your article is right on the mark. Well done. This whole thing smells to high heaven, but my bet is, unless a Sailor goes public, we will not find out the truth.

Vigilis said...

This is my theory:

1. Not keeping the nearest coastline within view (i.e. the shortest transit route from Kuwait to Bahrain when naked-eye visibility was at least 5 miles and long range optics were certainly available, seems inexplicable unless it actually was a covert, daylight operation. However, scheduling a daylight covert op on the day of a SOTU address would be unusual in Obama's micromanaged military even if stakes were unusually urgent. (Compare to the raid on Osama bin laden)

2. The C.O. (unidentified Lt. who "apologized") seemed in my opinion to be rehearsed rather than under duress. When he initially flubbed his answer to the point of departure and intended destination he quickly corrected it in an obviously anxious moment. Perhaps under orders, he had correctly navigated to his intended capture destination. What!? (certain gear on the boats would have been removed, including serviceable navigation aids)

3. The timeline of a few surrounding events can only be described as UNUSUALLY quick. For instance:

+ Speaking at the Capitol before Obama's 9 p.m. S.O.T.U address to the nation, Secretary Kerry told CNN's Dana Bash that he expected the sailors to be released "very soon". (When has John Kerry ever been able to negotiate so fast with Iran?)

+ Iran's Revolutionary Guard released the 10 detained U.S. Navy sailors before 9 a.m. GMT (4 a.m. EST) the next morning. (When has Iran ever honored a U.S. request so fast?)

+ Both Vice President Biden and a State Department official told reporters that there was “no apology from Kerry” to the Iranians. (CYA before video released).

--------------------------------------------
Obama's S.O.T.U. audience had been on the decline every year since 2009. According to the WSJ, "[The 2015] State of the Union Drew Lowest TV Audience in 15 Years" at 31.7 million viewers.

The administration wanted desperately to avoid such an embarrassing Obama legacy by getting more audience for his FINAL S,O,T.U. Was the "capture" a statged event planned and coordinated in advance with Iran? (Were our sailors were treated humanely, as the Lt and administration maintain?)

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy chided President Obama for completely omitting any mention of Iran's detention of our sailors. How many ADDITIONAL viewers watched the SOTU for a human interest update on our sailors? (ANSWER: Not enough! Viewership DECLINED AGAIN, but certainly not by as much as the administration's experts had feared.)

This administration's disappointment is well deserved.

Zebra Dun said...

An Iranian flypaper exercise designed to suck US forces into a fire sack both Material and Political.
To act was to start something bigger to not act was to look foolish and helpless.
The Iranian's won this round.
I'm thinking the CV BG was heading for blue water as fast as it could and turning into the wind, but that may be just wishful thinking.
Losing a carrier may be something the administration would love to do but it would tarnish it's legacy somewhat.

Nate Hale said...

Rest assured, activity by the Truman carrier battle group (and other US assets in the region) will become a closely-guarded secret, at least until the Truman returns to Norfolk.

If there was any call for assistance from the patrol craft, the logical action by the battle group commander is to render assistance. Starting/continuing flight ops would be a logical step--sending F/A-18s to provider cover and a helicopter to lower equipment, supplies, and personnel to make repairs. Would also assume a surface vessel would be dispatched and the airborne E-2D would be coordinating air support.

In the wake of the episode, the Iranians faulted the Truman battle group for "maneuvering" as the situation unfolded. That suggests they were aware of what was going on, and we preparing to take action. But there are no reports of our aircraft being overhead, or other surface assets arriving in the area. Sound familiar? Appears to be eerily similar to Benghazi. More than three years later, we're finally learning that assets were being spun up to assist our personnel on the ground, including a SF team that was training in Croatia. One of the security contractors also divulged that AC-130 gunships were on the ground in Djibouti (six hours away) and at NAS Sigonella, Italy (about an hour away).

But we know what happened. The standown was given and our personnel were on their own. Beginning to believe the same thing happened last week.

Slick Demetrius said...

So long as the humiliating photos of captured prisoners was done during "peace time", we're all okay here? Interesting logic.
Everyday it seems I see the essence, spirit and sentience evaporate from this once great nation.

The Savage Possum said...

What if it was done as a free advertisement of the wonderful new relations we have negotiated with "former" enemies in order to get a Nobel Peace prize? It makes more sense then the odds of two propulsion system equipment failures, two boat crews who can't dead reckon navigate, no one having a cell phone with GPS on board, Iran jamming GPS signals, ad nauseam...

Nate Hale said...

Possum--Anything is possible with this bunch, and there are still too many unanswered questions. The "latest" version of events from the Navy claims that one of the boats suffered a breakdown as they drifted near Iranian territorial waters. The other patrol boat shut down and tried to help the other crew repair their vessel.

Not a sailor, and I'll certainly defer to those with more expertise in naval matters, but that seems a bit strange. If one boat is still operational, why not break out a tow line and pull the disabled craft to friendly waters? According to an article by John Schindler in the New York Observer, these boats are Swedish-built and designed to operate in colder waters. They have suffered frequent breakdowns in the Persian Gulf, so they always operate in pairs and they always get underway with tow lines on board. Again, why not abort the transit and start pulling the disabled boat back towards Kuwait?

The rest of this sorry episode still makes no sense. There is no mention in the Navy account of radio calls from the patrol boats requesting assistance. In fact, the only radio traffic mentioned is a call from the Iranian Navy (about three hours into the incident) that they have taken our sailors into custody. The radio call was received by the cruiser USS Anzio. How far away was the Anzio? Were in air or surface assets in position to render assistance? The Navy still won't say.

Not buying the navigation error explanation, either. In this era of GPS, the crews knew where they were and even if the Iranians were employing GPS jamming, members of that crew are still qualified to pull out charts and sextant and navigate the old-fashioned way.

Still believe the most likely explanation is something like this: the patrol boats delivered some sort of semi-submersible insertion craft or mini-sub to the area just before one of them was disabled. The other possibility is they were in the area to rendezvous with some sort of small SF craft, but when the breakdown occurred, that mission was aborted.

As with Benghazi, it may take years for all the facts to be revealed.

The Savage Possum said...

I believe you. But add this into the mix; two of the sailors got their cellphones back after the ordeal with their SIM cards missing. Ah-ha, they did have phones! I would believe they would have had to surrender them if a covert mission. Also, if it was covert & they were in or near enemy waters with one functioning MV, why didn't they destroy sensitive items the sea water wouldn't, scuttle the disabled vessel, board the functioning vessel & scoot? Whoever concocts these stories that are leaked to the press really should hire a "Tom Clancy" type techno-thriller writer to "fact & plausibility check" their "leaks".

Nate Hale said...

I am equally puzzled over the lack of a combat "sanitization." During my days as an aircrew member, any operational mission meant you left all personal items behind except for your ID card and blood chit. It was also standard procedure to sanitize your flight suit; name tag remained, but all squadron/wing/command patches came off.

From what I've read, the boat crews were even carrying their passports. Back in the day, military members could enter friendly nations with just their armed forces ID card.

All of the measures you describe are standard practice for anyone on an operational mission, and trying to prevent the enemy from gaining control of sensitive equipment and information. I'm still mystified as to why the functional boat simply didn't take place the second vessel under tow, and why no air support was dispatched to the scene. This was a total cluster from the git-go, and I believe some sort of "stand-down" order (in terms of assistance) will eventually surface.