Were the U.S. Boats Off Course in the Persian Gulf an Actual Example of the Mythical “Rogue Operation”?

Iran navy patrolling the Persian Gulf. (Photo: the Guardian)

Iran navy patrolling the Persian Gulf. (Photo: the Guardian)

The 10 U.S. sailors and two boats that were detained in the Persian Gulf by Iran on January 12 were released a day later, but questions remain. Military historian and war gamer Jack Radey attempts to answer them. — Ed.

The problem is not hard to address logically. All of the official and unofficial stories that have come out are based on the notion that the boats accidentally strayed into Iranian waters, specifically within 3 miles of Farsi Island. The first story was mechanical problems, then one boat had mechanical problems (engine conked out) and the other ran out of gas, so couldn’t tow the first, then the SecDef announced no, no mechanical problem, a navigation error. Of some 50 miles.

Despite some questions I raised about the fact that the crews were all dressed in brown/green camo, it’s true, the guys don’t look like SEALS.

The right wing whackos are all insisting that true ’nuff, the explanations of drifting or mistakenly mis-navigating into Iranian waters just… doesn’t hold water, but their conclusion is therefore they WEREN’T taken in Iranian waters, but rather the Iranians jumped them in international waters and the cowards in the White House and State Dept. were too scaredy cat or unmanly enough to just let the Iranians take our sailors captive.

There is an alternative explanation that, I think, makes a lot more sense.

One, a friend visited me a few weeks ago, and one evening it was necessary to call 911 for him, an ambulance came, took him off to the hospital to rule out heart attack. I chased the ambulance to the hospital so he could get a ride home when released, and was up until 0400. Then we had to drive home. It’s from a part of town I am only slightly familiar with. I was having a very hard time reading street signs, and in no mood to muddle around. Easy. My buddy, who is far more into tech than I, whipped out his cellphone, and asked how to get home. It both spoke to him, telling him where to go, and also displayed a map. I asked, “Don’t we need to read a street sign to tell it where we are?” “No, it knows where we are.”

Do you believe that US Naval craft are less well equipped than your average cellphone user? Do you believe that they do not have an autopilot table that shows on a screen precisely where they are at all times, in relation to nearby coasts? But suppose all that was not working, on either boat. If you were piloting a US Naval craft in the Persian Gulf, you would know that if you were headed from Kuwait to Bahrain you need to bear south. And if you put your shallow draft craft within sight of the coast, and keep the coast to starboard, YOU CAN’T GET LOST. And since that coast is nominally friendly, and to the east the situation is more dicey, wouldn’t you sail fairly close to shore? But let’s say there are dangers sailing too close to shore. You should still be able to eyeball the shore from several miles off. But let’s say it was night, or foggy? (Foggy? In the Persian Gulf??) If you have seen the pictures of similar boats, they have a short mast, maybe 12 feet above the waterline. On top of that mast is a small dome. Radar. Nothing fancy, not an air search radar, just for the surface. To tell you if you are about to hit a boat, or land. It could see the shore from several miles out in the Gulf, even in the dark or fog. It could also see Farsi Island coming up, probably before the boat entered territorial waters.

Do you believe the first the US knew they were in trouble was when they “lost contact” with the boats? Is there anywhere else on the planet where the US is likely to have more surveillance assets — satellite, aircraft, plus ship- and ground-based radar — than here? Or that we don’t track the location of any vessels of any nationality there? For that matter, do you believe that there are not at least one search and rescue helicopter and 2-4 fighter jets sitting in Zulu condition (pilot in seat, fueled, armed, and ready to take off in emergency) in one of our bases there?

Now we get to the next interesting question. WTF were they doing? I would tentatively rule out a SEAL mission to Farsi Island. At least not by these guys. Submarine? Maybe.  Rubber raft (lower profile in every sense) just possibly. Riverine patrol boat? I don’t think so.

Standard procedure would include planning a trip from Kuwait to Bahrain, which would be run in such a way as to guarantee staying well clear of Iranian waters, and especially an Iranian naval base with lots of fast small craft based there. Both boats, their communications gear, engines, fuel, and navigation capability would have been checked beforehand. This is SOP.

So. What was the mission, and who ordered it? Because if it is unlikely to the vanishing point that these guys ended up at Farsi involuntarily, it has to be that they went there on purpose. What purpose? If we rule out SEAL mission, I suppose it could possibly to test Iranian readiness and the state of their alertness and how they would respond. But this is pretty much a given, and this has been demonstrated time and again. I would suspect that if the Iranians picked the boats up on radar, US ELINT assets in the area knew this as fast as the Iranians did. Probably the guys on the boat did too, but that is an assumption.

So it was entirely predictable what would happen when these boats got into Iranian waters. They would be jumped. If they resisted with armed force, they would be butchered and sunk. What purpose would that serve? It would serve no purpose for the Obama administration. It would counter anything Obama said about his successful peacemaking with Iran, and it would give the GOP candidates, particularly at the debates, lots of opportunity to wave their genitalia about and call for bombing, bloodletting, and mayhem.

It is my belief that there are political factions in the military, as well as in every other part of the US government. Some favor the GOP. I would take a very long, hard, look at who ordered this mess, and what their political views are.

 

Jack Radey is a military historian and creator of war games.