Security Team on U.S. Navy Supply Ship Fires On Skiff Off Dubai, Killing One [UPDATED]

USNS Rappahannock
USNS Rappahannock is one of Military Sealift Command’s fifteen Fleet Replenishment Oilers and is part of the 32 ships in Military Sealift Command’s Combat Logistics Force.

Update: The vessel fired on was a fishing boat whose owner is from the United Arab Emirates, according to Al Arabiya television. The fisherman who was killed and the three people injured were Indian, according to the U.A.E.’s WAM state news agency. The U.S. Navy couldn’t confirm those details as the investigation was under way.

The U.S. Navy released a statement saying:

“In accordance with Navy force protection procedures, the sailors on the USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) used a series of non-lethal, preplanned responses to warn the vessel before resorting to lethal force.”

Original: (Bloomberg) — A U.S. Navy vessel fired on a motor boat off the coast of Dubai today after it ignored warnings not to approach, an official said. One person was killed, according to a second U.S. official with knowledge of the incident.

“An embarked security team aboard a U.S. Navy vessel fired upon a small motor vessel after it disregarded warnings and rapidly approached the U.S. ship,” Greg Raelson, media officer for U.S. Navy, said in an e-mailed statement. The incident occurred at 2.50 p.m. local time, 10 miles off the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, he said.

The vessel was struck by Navy fire, killing one person and injuring three others, said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because the incident was still being investigated. The privately owned craft was first warned away from the USNS Rappahannock by voice, radio, and light signals, the official said. The Rappahannock is a cargo ship operated by the Navy’s [Military Sealift Command] with a mostly civilian crew, the official said.

The vessel fired on was a fishing boat whose owner was from the United Arab Emirates, according to Al Arabiya television. The fisherman who was killed and the three people injured were Indian, according to the U.A.E.’s WAM state news agency.

The incident was near the Strait of Hormuz, where tensions have risen. Some Iranian officials threatened earlier this year to shut down the waterway, which funnels one-fifth of the global oil supply, in response to increased U.S. pressure to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons technology. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for civilian use.

Lethal Force

“In accordance with Navy force protection procedures, the sailors on the USNS Rappahannock used a series of non-lethal, preplanned responses to warn the vessel before resorting to lethal force,” Raelson said. “When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun.”

The boat that was fired on approached within 100 yards (91 meters) to 200 yards of the U.S. ship, according to another U.S. official also speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon has been beefing up its military presence in the region and today said it was accelerating by four months the deployment of the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group to the region. The Navy also has doubled its counter-mine ships to eight to thwart any attempts to close the strait.

USS Cole

U.S. Navy ships are sensitive to being approached by other vessels, especially after the destroyer USS Cole was bombed by a suicide attack boat in Yemen in October 2000, Michael Eisenstadt, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in a phone interview.

“You’ve the possibility of an al-Qaeda attack, and the effect is to put troops on very high alert,” Eisenstadt said.

There have been “very few incidents in memory in which we have ended up with the use of lethal or non-lethal fire,” Eisenstadt said, pointing to a January 2008 incident when Iranian fast boats approached within 500 yards of U.S. naval vessels and no shots were fired.

Iranian naval activity and U.S. encounters with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have been calm “in the last couple of months,” U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said last month. “Iranian naval conduct has been ‘‘professional and courteous, committing to the rules of the road,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

By Donna Abu-Nasr, Gopal Ratnam and Tony Capaccio Copyright 2012 Bloomberg.