By Kevin Sorbello
Every ship has a right to defend itself from attack. Fire hoses, LRAD systems, small arms, professional security teams, or military security detachments provide alternatives to falling victim of violence. However, as the levels of force for defense rise, so too do the chances for injury or death of aggressors or defenders.
On or about 16 July, 2012, the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK, a Military Sealift Command replenishment tanker supporting the US Navy in the Arabian Gulf, identified a fast-moving small-boat on an intercept course. Responding in accordance to protocol, the vessel reported they made several attempts to contact the incoming boat by radio, yet no response was received. They then started flashing their lights and issued other visible and audible warnings for the small boat to alter their course. When the boat failed to alter their course, the military security detachment assigned to the ship as a maritime security (MARSEC) fired warning shots into the water from their 50 caliber machine guns. When the boat still failed to alter course, the team directed their fire on the boat and the result was the death of one and injury of a few others onboard.
The boat was later identified as a “pleasure craft” crewed primarily by Indian fishermen, and statements made by the survivors imply no visual or audio warnings were issued by the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK.
From the perspective of those onboard the small boat, it is possible that the noise of engines operating at full power could have drowned out any audible warnings issued by the RAPPAHANNOCK, or that a combination of noise and other distractions rendered such warnings ineffective. It is also possible that the visual warnings issued by the ship were not perceived as such by the small boat’s captain and the other fishermen onboard were not paying much attention to their current heading, or were similarly unaware of the meaning of the flashing lights and/or flares fired in their direction.
Boats accustomed to operating in the Arabian Gulf, however, fully understand the need to avoid big, grey ships whenever possible, and when not possible, do everything in their power to show no signs of aggressive behavior. I recall two occasions where the small boats in question made a very slow, circuitous approach towards a USNS vessel as they returned our repair teams back to our parent ship. When we attempted to convince the boat’s captain he could make a more direct and speedy approach, he responded by saying such a maneuver was “unwise” given the tensions in the area. These two incidents happened more than 10 years ago; the implication being that virtually anyone operating in the area understands the need for caution around large, grey ships.
From the vessel’s perspective, whether the high speed vessel on approach was a pleasure craft, a smuggler in a RHIB, an Iranian navy small boat, or a rubber boat with an outboard motor, the possibility of becoming another USS COLE was still very valid. In fact, the less threatening the “type” of boat, the more caution must be applied. When all available measures are taken to warn such a boat away from their current course fails, especially in an environment where virtually every boat’s captain understands the rules surrounding military and military support vessels, the only option remaining is self-defense.
Part of the problem is education and communication. I once almost grounded a small pleasure craft because I believed a waving flashlight ashore was a signal directing us to that location. As it turned out, it was someone who saw us approaching shallow water and was trying to warn us off. If the Indian crew did not understand the rules of engagement in the area, they would not have been looking for signs of warning, and might have misunderstood what they saw or heard. This would support the claims by the surviving crew members that no warnings were issued.
This has now become an international incident. Iran has used the incident to support their claims that a foreign military presence in the area incites such engagements and is attempting to use this particular incident to push their agenda for being the only military force operating in the area of the Straits of Hormuz. As such, the burden of proof will fall on the ship using deadly force.
The captain of the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK is a seasoned professional that obsessively follows protocol. There is little doubt he closely monitored the MARSEC team and ensured protocol was followed in this case as well. However, when it comes time to “prove” protocols were followed and the approaching boat presented a hostile attitude, it may come down to the testimony of witnesses whose motivations seem self-protective. The Indian crew members will say no warnings were issued and they never presented a hostile threat; those onboard the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK will argue they followed protocol and the small boat did indeed present a viable threat.
The question then becomes: Who do you believe? When the media presents pictures of wounded sailors who claim they were fired upon without cause, who will receive the greater credibility, especially when in retrospect it can be shown there were no explosives or offensive weapons aboard?
This situation highlights the tensions in the area, but more importantly, shows the need for objective documentation whenever there is the possible use of deadly force. Had the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK produced video/audio recordings of the incident, their testimony regarding the apparent threat and the measures they used to discourage the small boat’s approach would be self-evident. In such a situation, it would then have fallen to the small boat’s crew to explain why the measures were ineffective. This would have focused the investigation on how to improve the warning systems and how better to inform those operating in the Arabian Gulf of the rules of engagement with such vessels. Instead, the investigation will focus on whether or not the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK was justified in using deadly force, and if so, whether or not they followed protocol. Without physical evidence, the results of the investigation will be subject to personal bias by those uninvolved with the case. Those who believe the US should not be in the area will call any conclusion that no wrong was done as a whitewash; those who feel the ship acted in self-defense will consider the entire investigation a witch-hunt.
The installation of video w/audio equipment aboard large vessels, with an additional portable video recording device, would eliminate most of the subjectivity and provide documentation that presents an unbiased view of the chronology and severity of the events as they unfold. Although still subject to a degree of subjective questioning, the basic facts would present themselves to investigators and the public. Transparency is key, and simple measures that provide objective documentation assists even the witnesses who may err on recounting violent or stressful events.
This applies to non-military vessels who fear pirate attacks, as such documentation would provide objective data for their own defense should their efforts result in the death or injury of parties on either side.
It is therefore recommended that ship operators carefully consider their legal position should they be faced with a violent or potentially violent situation and provide video recording equipment that allows a ship to document its actions. This is the 21st century and private individuals record events all the time. For an entire industry to ignore the benefits afforded by inexpensive equipment is unwise. For military and military support vessels to not require recording of such events is to invite suspicion and risk international situations as exemplified with the USNS RAPPAHANNOCK. This should be considered a wake-up call for amending the protocols for the use of deadly force to include videotaping of the entire event.