Tags: ABOT, Arabian Gulf
The Arabian Gulf (AG) has evolved into a proving ground for expeditionary patrol boat operations. In the future, reduced high-end combatant availability, a truncated LCS fleet, and the growing importance of the kinds of littoral and irregular warfare operations that favor patrol craft capabilities will likely sustain or increase demand for patrol craft in overseas contingency operations. Both the Navy and Coast Guard should pause to reflect on some of the enduring lessons-learned from operating patrol craft in the AG for the last twelve years to ensure that future patrol craft crews are well-prepared for operating in politically-sensitive, high-threat environments.
Patrol craft might seem like unlikely instruments of US seapower in a region where Carrier Strike Groups frequently deploy to quell regional saber rattling, but their versatile capabilities actually make them well-suited for supporting Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) missions in the AG.
Using patrol craft in overseas contingency operations added unique dimension to the maritime campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Prior to OIF, the last time the Coast Guard deployed patrol craft out-of-hemisphere to support combat operations was the Vietnam War, when it sent several 82-foot cutters to disrupt Viet Cong maritime supply lines. The Navy also has limited recent experience with forward-deploying patrol craft. Prior to OIF, the Navy ultimately declined to deploy the Cyclone-class PCs for their original purpose as a special operations platforms, and the PCs remained stateside spending much of their time supporting Coast Guard law enforcement patrols. Five of the PCs were even crewed and operated as Coast Guard cutters for several years.
For nearly a decade, the primary mission for Coast Guard and Navy patrol craft was securing Iraq’s maritime domain from terrorism, foreign incursion, and smuggling as part of Combined Task Force-Iraqi Maritime (CTF-IM). The destruction of Saddam’s navy at the outset of OIF created a critical maritime security vacuum in an area with hostile neighbors, a high risk of terrorist attack, and two offshore oil terminals that distribute nearly all of Iraq’s oil (more than 80% of Iraq’s GDP) to the global market. Up to six US patrol craft remained constantly on station in Iraqi waters providing perimeter defense for Iraq’s oil terminals, patrolling along the disputed Iraq/Iran maritime boundary, training the new Iraqi Navy, Marines, and Coastal Border Guard, and boarding vessels suspected of smuggling weapons or other contraband into or out of Iraq. As the Iraqi Navy gained more experience and assets, it gradually assumed responsibility for patrolling its waters. The Iraqi Navy formally took over maritime security duties from CTF-IM on December 31st 2011.
Demand for patrol boats did not diminish with the handoff of the Iraqi Maritime mission. Instead, their stock actually went up, in part due to shrinking budgets and a westward rebalance that reduced US Navy big deck deployments to the AG region.
The Navy recently deployed four more 179-foot Cyclone-class patrol coastals (PCs) to Bahrain, bringing the PC presence there to ten of the total fleet of 13. The Coast Guard continues to operate six 110-foot Island-class patrol boats (110s) from Bahrain, which work alongside and perform many of the same missions as the Navy PCs. Commenting on the recent shift of more PCs to 5th Fleet, a Navy spokesman stated that the PCs were fulfilling several missions previously assigned to destroyers and other large surface combatants to free up the latter for more pressing tasking elsewhere.
Past as prologue
The handover of the Iraqi Maritime mission was the end of an era for AG patrol craft, and the recent arrival of more PCs to the region heralds the beginning of a new one. The present transition period presents a good inflection point to distill some of the lessons-learned from the Iraqi Maritime mission and other AG patrol craft operations, and apply them to anticipate some of the challenges that patrol craft may encounter in the as they assume a more prominent role in NAVCENT operations.
Following are five lessons that can be gleaned from over a decade of AG patrol craft operations. There are many more worth consideration, and hopefully others will contribute their insights to further the discussion.
One of the many memorable quotes by General Mattis is a phrase that he gave his Marines in Iraq to live by: “be polite, be courteous, but have a plan to kill every man you meet.” Ingraining that kind of mindset might seem extreme, but it is a necessary adaptation to the reality of irregular warfare in which combatants and terrorists disguise themselves amongst the civilian population.
Operating in the AG requires a similar mindset. Commanders must have a plan, not necessarily to kill, but certainly to react decisively to a provocation or attack. Dense maritime traffic, a constant terrorism threat, and frequent harassment by irregular Iranian forces compound to make discerning and responding to potential surprise attacks a vexing challenge.
Distinguishing a possible threat from normal maritime traffic is especially difficult in the AG, where dhows are ubiquitous and used for every purpose conceivable. Getting from one place to another invariably involves threading through constellations of dhows that tend to maneuver erratically, ignore radiotelephone calls, rarely display navigation lights, and bear few identifiable characteristics to distinguish them from thousands of others. Further, patrol craft crews do not have the benefit of a combat information center, organic air reconnaissance (at least not yet), or signals intelligence capability that a large combatant tends to employ to assist with maintaining situational awareness. Knowing what to look for and developing an instinctive coup d’oeil to sense when a dhow might not be “just a dhow” takes training and experience that should begin well before arrival in the AG.
ROE decisions: Anticipate early, practice often.
Rules of engagement (ROE) for AG operations were recently the subject of international media attention after a boat crew from the Coast Guard cutter Monomoy fired a warning shot at an armed Iranian dhow. A crewmember on the dhow reportedly trained and readied a crew-served weapon at the Coast Guard crew as they approached in the cutter’s inflatable boat, and a Coast Guardsman in the boat fired the shot in response. The incident was instantly sensationalized with headlines such as “US Coast Guard Fires on Iranian Sailing Vessel.” A flood of comments on several media sites reacted with sentiments that ranged from indignation that the Coast Guard did not respond with more force, to conspiracy theories that insisted that the incident was an attempt to cause a Gulf of Tonkin-like casus belli to precipitate war with Iran. The Monomoy incident provides an excellent opportunity for discussing the challenge of making judicious ROE decisions in the AG.
AG missions require operating in the difficult grey area between combat and peacetime. Maritime infrastructure protection, boardings, freedom of navigation exercises, etc. require close interaction with other vessels, which means limited time to react if attacked. Well-rehearsed response procedures must complement appropriate ROE and weapons postures to enable a unit to defend itself and others in such an environment. However, operating in a hypersensitive political area like the AG means that any action perceived as unjustified or excessive can undermine fragile partnerships or an existing modus vivendi and ultimately compromise mission success. ROE responses must thus strike the right balance between security and restraint.
Patrol craft in the AG often feel the opposing pressures keenly. Interactions with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (aka IRGCN, the maritime arm of Iran’s irregular military force loyal to the Ayatollah) are a frequent occurrence. IRGCN vessels are notorious for trying to provoke US warships into using force in order to inflame anti-Western sentiment, and run-ins with them require a high degree of restraint. Excessive restraint however, can also prove costly. The consequences of either too much aggression or too much caution in a given situation are illustrated by the following scenarios.
On April 25, 2004, the Navy PC USS Firebolt detected a suspicious cargo dhow approaching the security zone around the Khawr al Amaya oil terminal and sent a joint USN-USCG boarding team to investigate. Before the boarding team had a chance to embark and assess the threat, the explosive-laden dhow detonated. Two US Navy sailors and one Coast Guardsman were killed, with four others wounded. The outcome would have been far worse if the dhow had reached its intended target. Had it not sent the boarding team, USS Firebolt and the point defense on the oil platform would have had only a few minutes to determine whether to use deadly force on a vessel that showed no obvious outward signs of hostility. As it turned out, the consequences of a “false negative” (i.e. assuming the vessel was not actually a threat and deciding not to fire on it) would have been catastrophic.
The alternative possibility (false positive)—can also be tragic and diplomatically disastrous. The most notorious example from the AG is the USS Vincennes mistaking Iran Air flight 655 for a hostile aircraft and shooting it down, killing all 290 passengers. More recently, in 2012, the USNS Rappahannock opened fire on a small vessel that continued approaching the ship at high speed despite warnings to steer clear. The Rappahannock’s.50 caliber gunfire killed one Indian fisherman and wounded three others. Both actions were time-critical decisions made with imperfect information, and both resulted in loss of innocent life.
These and other similar examples weigh heavily on commanding officers, who own responsibility for the outcome of every ROE decision. Placing patrol craft on the front lines of AG operations places a heavy burden on junior Commanding Officers and their crews to make the right call in tense, uncertain situations. Rehearsing ROE scenarios in realistic, scenario-based training should be a core component of the pre-deployment workup cycle, and the training should continue on a frequent basis once in-theater.
Lessons 1 and 2 apply with particular emphasis during small boat operations and boarding evolutions
Boarding vessels is a common evolution for patrol craft in the AG. Boardings serve several purposes, from enforcing UN mandates (searching for weapons or contraband), to simply interacting with mariners to “take the pulse” of an area from the local’s perspective. Referring back to lesson 1, however, no boarding in the AG is ever “routine.”
Whatever the mission, boarding teams and boat crews are vulnerable as soon as they launch. Their communications and defensive capabilities are limited, as are their options for exfiltration once the boarding team is onboard another vessel. Large combatants often have the luxury of launching multiple boarding teams simultaneously, and even an armed helicopter or UAV for additional cover. Patrol craft are limited to one boat crew/boarding team and must provide cover with the ship.
Whenever possible, patrol craft need to keep the boarding team close enough to protect them from a surprise attack. If operational necessity requires sending a boarding team beyond that range, it is imperative that they are properly equipped to defend themselves and cognizant of their surroundings. If there was ever any question as to why, the 2007 HMS Cornwall incident removed any lingering uncertainty.
In March of 2007, IRGCN speedboats ambushed a UK boarding team from the HMS Cornwall operating near the Iran-Iraq maritime boundary and demanded their surrender. The Cornwall was miles away at the time, and the Lynx helicopter that had been providing overwatch for the boarding team had returned to the ship to refuel. In accordance with their “de-escalatory” ROE, the UK on-scene commander ordered the team to give up their weapons and allowed the Iranians to apprehend them. Although all 15 personnel were returned unharmed after two weeks in captivity, the kidnapping created a high profile incident that continues to haunt operational commanders conducting boarding operations in the AG. Following the incident, the British First Sea Lord commented that the boarding team had acted appropriately under the circumstances, a view that excited much debate in naval circles.
The HMS Cornwall case contains important lessons on selecting and validating ROE, decisions regarding outfitting and close support requirements for boarding teams, training for contingencies, communications, and vulnerability assessment calculations. All of the above should shape the policy for training for and conducting small boat and boarding operations in the AG, with additional emphasis placed on mitigating the limitations inherent to patrol craft for protecting boat crews and boarding teams operating beyond the vicinity of the ship.
Hone diplomatic skills and cultural understanding
Promoting stability in the Arabian Gulf requires a combination of deterrence and diplomatic engagement. The engagement side involves frequent security cooperation and training exercises with other maritime forces in the region. These exercises are an important dimension of CENTCOM’s strategy, but they are easily undermined by a lack of cultural awareness.
Security cooperation is a delicate mission, with success often measured by a partner nation’s willingness to maintain a cooperative relationship. The cultural peculiarities of the AG demand a high degree of understanding to facilitate positive interactions and avoid embarrassing breaches of decorum.
Cultural awareness training must be a high priority for maritime forces deploying to the AG. This is perhaps even more important for patrol craft crews since they tend to work closely alongside partner nations in a peer-to-peer role. The training must go much deeper than a background lecture on the Koran and overview of NAVCENT policies during Ramadan. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS-21) describes a more comprehensive approach:
“A key to fostering [expanded cooperative] relationships is development of sufficient cultural, historical, and linguistic expertise among our Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsman to nurture effective interaction with diverse international partners.”
The US military learned the value of cultural awareness training in more than decade of COIN-intensive warfare. However, more of that expertise needs to make its way to maritime operations. Some examples of how we could improve in this area include plugging patrol craft crews in with foreign area officers, training with role players in a variety of likely foreign nation engagement situations, and adding a limited language component to pre-deployment training that builds a basic, area-specific maritime lexicon.
Adapt training to cultural realities.
Improving the security capabilities of partner nations is a necessary Phase IV objective in a campaign plan and an important steady-state mission, as recently reinforced by Presidential Policy Directive-23.
In planning maritime security force assistance missions, let no one doubt what a massive undertaking it can be to build a degraded naval force back to functional capability. Rebuilding the Iraqi Navy was a multi-year effort that required tremendous resources, patience and time. One frustration in the process was working around cultural friction points such as Sunni/Shia integration and officer/enlisted relations. Other norms that a western military might take for granted such as preventive maintenance, personal protective equipment standards, motivation, and punctuality, did not translate directly across cultural boundaries.
A popular passage by T. E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia” attempts to place these challenges into context.
“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”
Prescient insight, perhaps, although one wonders how Lawrence would have assessed the Iraqi military’s recent performance.
Returning focus to the tactical level, the takeaway for crews performing training and advisory roles is to anticipate cultural friction points (consistent with lesson four), set expectations accordingly, and determine ways to mitigate them. Success must focus on whether or not the force, once equipped and trained, can adequately secure its maritime domain. How it does so will vary. Setting expectations that do not align with intractable cultural realities will lead to frustration and undermine success.
Closing Thought – A Way Ahead for Patrol Craft in Contingency Operations
The long-term role for patrol craft in overseas contingency operations appears uncertain. They have proven their value in AG missions, but there seems to be no plan to give them a permanent place in the US forward-deployed seapower arsenal. The Navy’s long-term acquisition plan does not include anything to replace the PCs. (The Navy has added patrol vessels such as the Coastal Command Boat and Mark IV, but those vessels are much smaller and designed for nearshore operations.) Once the PCs reach the end of their service life, the Navy will not have a ship in its inventory between an 85-foot nearshore patrol vessel and a 400-foot LCS.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, recently launched the tenth of its planned fleet of 58 new 154-foot Sentinel-class Fast Response Cutters (FRC). FRCs are a major capability upgrade over the legacy Island class, but so far there are no indications that any of them will be dedicated to an expeditionary or out-of-hemisphere role. That FRC’s potential for expeditionary operations should be closely considered, consistent with the following guidance in the 2010 Naval Operating Concept:
“The Coast Guard inventory must maintain sufficient capacity to support geographic combatant commander TSC plans, expeditionary requirements requested through the Global Force Management process; and overseas contingency operations; in addition to its full suite of statutory domestic missions.”
One potential opportunity for sea-service synergy might be for the Navy to acquire some Sentinel-class ships and create an expeditionary patrol craft squadron based in Mayport (along with the remaining three PCs and proposed eight LCS’). Mayport could serve as a USN-USCG expeditionary patrol craft training facility, focused on developing the skillset required to employ the vessels in overseas contingency operations. When not deployed out-of-hemisphere, the expeditionary patrol craft squadron could hone their skills in the SOUTHCOM AOR where additional maritime assets are sorely needed.