Monday, January 7, 2008

The Iranian Incident

I've received a couple of emails this morning asking my opinion on the Straits of Hormuz incident involving the US Navy and Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats.

I wasn't there this time, so my opinion is based entirely on my past experience - and as you know, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns, especially with the crazed mob running Iran these days.

I've had the watch several times on the way through that strait, it's a tense process during the best of times. However, the Iranian Navy is fairly professional, and professional sailors from all countries tend to respect each other and tend to behave in a fairly predictable manner with respect for the rules of the sea. However, this incident appears to have involved the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force, these are not professional sailors or navy men - they are religious zealots who passionately hate America (and pretty much everybody else). Their actions are unpredictable and are often driven by political and religious reasons that are incomprehensible to westerners.

However, rest assured, had it come down to it - the Navy would have blown those boats out of the water without scratching their own paint. And the IRG knows that. Attack us at sea in our own element, and you are going to see some serious shit. It's one thing to attack a warship tied to the pier, or to go after a tanker restricted in it's ability to maneuver - it is something else entirely to engage a fast destroyer task force that is warned, linked, and ready to fight. But I doubt that a fight was the Iranian's intention and I suspect that the basic gist of the Times article, cited above, is in large part correct. The Iranian Government needs to show their own people that they aren't afraid of US Military might and that the Revolutionary Guard is the true power in the region, and they can spin this story however they like within Iran.

On the other hand, this incident has given Wall Street the perfect opportunity to ratchet up oil prices yet again.


  1. Yep, going out to flex the muscles...that's the charitable way to put it.

    I'm trying to think of a reason why I should be charitable when it comes to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Force, though, and I can't think of one.

    So to be uncharitable, they were out there figuratively screaming, "my dick's bigger than yours!"

    When of course, everyone knows that America has "Smiling Bob," and no one's dick is bigger than ours.

  2. I agree, based on my own experience in the Gulf with the Iranians, that's exactly what they were doing.

    Problem is, it can pass the point of no return very very quickly. Skippers have limited options, once the threat is inside the reaction envelope - bad shit is going to happen, period. And the last thing any of us need in the next year is another 'Gulf of Tonkin' incident.

  3. I agree with your analysis, having made a few trips through the Straights of Malacca that were a bit hairy.

    I just couldn't resist making fun of the sabre-rattling. That type of testosterone-fest always induces eye-rolling in me.

  4. One of them is going to pull the same crap that Chinese fighter pilot did over Hainan Dao and get greased in the process just like that Bottom Gun.

    Do you think that the ROE should be changed so that the skipper could have Phalanxed them? Once they failed to ID themselves and came in that close, that is.

  5. John, the ROE currently allows the Skipper (usually the Tactical Action Officer in reality) to take whatever actions are necessary to defend the ship and mission, which includes shooting first.

    The standing ROE normally goes something like:
    1. Inquiry
    2. Warning
    3. Countermeasures (including electronic, mechanical, and evasive maneuver)
    4. Warning shots
    5. Kinetic response - which includes anything from small arms to main battery.
    (understand I am not giving specifics here, and this list is only a general example).

    Any and all of these steps can be bypassed depending on the situation - but the CO/TAO should be able to justify why. In this case, that wouldn't have been hard.

    In a situation like this where the approaching unit(s) clearly communicated a threat, thus declaring himself hostile, the task force would have been fully justified in opening up with the 5" main guns. In the clips on CNN, you can clearly hear the General Quarters alarm sounding - I would guess based on my experience in the same area and facing the same force that they were going weapons tight and if the Iranian's hadn't sheared off when they did - they'd have been taken out. Based on my own experience in the SSWC chair (main surface engagement officer) I'd say it was probably no more than another 15-30 seconds before the Navy opened up.

  6. Do you think they waited too long? If someone's got a pony nuke, bio or chemical agents, or a dirty bomb, that's close enough to do damage.

    I was in DoD research on NBC counter-measures, that's why I'm more concerned about those kind of threats. Maybe I'm overly paranoid.

  7. I was in DoD research on NBC counter-measures,

    Small world - I used to teach tactical NBC for ground forces.

    I think in this situation we could safely say that the threat of chemical weapons is pretty remote, and bio is even more so. Ships are pretty air tight at General Quarters. (and even more so when they think there's an airborne threat). Small boats, high speed, wet salty environment and high winds that always carry the threat away from the ship (as long as it's moving) - not exactly optimal for chem/bio deployment, not impossible, but I'd say remote at best.

    A pocket nuke - maybe. But, I'd have to put a couple of conditions on that statement.
    1) while Iran probably has or can obtain the technical knowhow to built a fission weapon, and they obviously have the materials and facilities - there have been no detected tests of nuclear detonation.
    2) without testing, and computational facilities on the order of Sandia, I'd find it very unlikely that they could produce even a semi-reliable tactical weapon small enough to fit in a even their largest ballistic missile. Same with a small boat. Their weapons, should they have them, are very likely to be large and heavy enough to prevent deployment via small craft. In my professional opinion I'd say they would need at a minimum, a large patrol class craft - corvette sized, maybe a bogamol or larger, and a crew of martyrs to run it, and a technical team of martyrs to set it off. Again, not impossible, but unlikely, the crew is one thing, the technicians are valuable and another thing altogether. Assuming they could build one, how likely is it that it is technically robust enough to stand up to bashing through the waves at 25 knots in salt spray? Reliable enough to bet the farm on?
    3) It is entirely possible that they have obtained a pocket nuke from elsewhere, say Russia, via the black market. However, any such weapon would be at least 10-15 years old. Electronics sitting on top of an alpha, beta, neutron emitter for that long are likely to be so much trash by this time. And reports are that those weapons weren't all that reliable to begin with. Again, plausible, but I'd say unlikely.
    4) And then there's crazy, and batshit crazy. While there are a number of batshit crazy folks over there, most of the people in power are of the more cunning crazy variety. Detonation of an WMD in the SOH is highly likely to kill a number of Iranians, and probably affect Yemen and Oman. It's windy there, and the prevailing winds blow towards Iran. Are they crazy enough to kill their own people in order to take out a couple of destroyers? I doubt it. A carrier strike group during time of war? Much more likely. And in the batshit crazy category - well, all bets are off. Maybe they'd kill those destroyers as a demonstration of power to their neighbors, again I think this unlikely, because it's liable to go the other way (their neighbors are likely to gang up on them if they feel threatened) and finally, because frankly one pony nuke is unlikely, more than one? highly unlikely.
    5) and last, use of a WMD against US military assets would validate everything GWB has been saying, and basically it is the one thing that would pull his bacon out of the fire and give him a free hand to do as he pleases. And they know that.

    I think it is much more likely, in fact highly probable, that the primary threat in a situation like this one is explosive laden boats, either radio controlled or manned by martyrs. Additional threats include small guided missiles and RPGS (neither of which could seriously damage a warship).

    As to how long they waited. From what I could see on the video, they were doing exactly the right thing. You can bet they went into the SOH in a high state of readiness, and that the CIC teams, sensor crews, and intel team were locked on to those boats well outside of threat range and tracking the entire way. It's important to balance paranoia against real threat - remember the Vicennes airbus shoot down? We analyzed that situation very carefully and the things that led to it, as well as things like the
    Cole. Modern procedures have both of the those situations in mind. If they had met certain tactical thresholds, those boats would have been blown out of the water long before they could get close enough to do real damage.

    Again, in my professional opinion, it appears to me (from what little raw data is available) that the task force handled the situation exactly as they should have.


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