Passing the paper-tiger test

February 03, 2008|By ROBERT GARY

The recent incident with the Iranian speedboats and their harassment of the USS Hopper in the Persian Gulf suggests the need for nondeadly responsive options when dealing with conflict involving asymmetric warfare.

If the only options are to do nothing or blow the speedboats out of the water, then a small naval force from a terrorist nation can have a huge impact on the most powerful navy the world has ever seen, by simply using stealth and feints and surprise real attacks (like that on the USS Cole).

Today we face the Kamikaze speedboats, whose operators now say were just doing routine maritime inspections. Putting a very large explosive into the bow of such a speedboat would be no great feat. The speedboats that approached the Hopper at 75 knots had a distance closing time of no more than five seconds. This is the sort of circumstance in which we need to find, and have with us, effective recourses and nonlethal options.


We need something milder than blowing the speedboats out of the water, but stronger than doing nothing. One of the fundamental principles of international law is the idea of proportionality. A response, consistent with the laws of war and of admiralty, always has to be proportional to the threat.

In the executive-protection business, where the idea is to keep a senior executive alive on the streets of an unruly foreign country, one of the favorite techniques is to load an automatic magazine with a few blanks and birdshot on top of the regular rounds.

If your executive gets harassed, you start out with the two blanks - no one dies, but the assailant gets to know that the executive has you, an armed guard, who is ready, willing and able to discharge a firearm. If the attacker keeps coming, you fire the birdshot rounds, preferably not at the attacker's head or neck. If the assailant keeps coming after being hit with the birdshot, a potentially lethal attack is most likely under way. It's not an accident. You let off the regular rounds. Your executive gets to live and your assailant gets his well-earned doom.

How would this work on a ship like the USS Hopper? The radar picks up fast boats at 5,000 yards and a security crew is ordered to man the rails, armed with rocket propelled flashbang grenades. These are cellulose grenades - they make a flash, they make a bang. The speedboat guys get to know that their presence has been detected, that it is not welcome and that it may meet with resistance. If they keep coming, screaming Jihadist warcries, the security crew locks and loads with rocket-propelled grenades loaded with rubber pellets - not the sort that would penetrate a hull and sink a boat, but the sort that would sting a lot if they struck unarmored flesh.

So far, the enemy is playing around and, on a proportionate basis, we are playing around, too. But the legal environment has now been clarified - there is no ambiguity to hide behind. If the speedboats keep coming, no sea lawyer is going to be able to credibly claim that they were on a peaceful mission. The equities have now shifted, and in the eyes of the world, given the USS Cole incident and all that has happened since then, most U.N. member nations would find that the U.S. is fully justified in taking out the threat with lethal force.

The main problem in the USS Hopper incident is that we had no nonlethal options to use. The Iran Revolutionary Guard did a little test. Whatever message we are trying to send by having those warships out there has been frustrated and confused by the fact that we did not pass the "paper tiger" test.

Next time, we need to pass the test. Here's how. Get rocket-propelled flashbang grenades and rubber pellet grenades, and train the deck security crews to be on deck locked and loaded when a 5,000 yard possible threat appears on the radar.

The next step is to establish standard operating procedures and standing orders so that the response process kicks in automatically with or without the participation of senior officers. The security crew must know, with no ambiguity, precisely what they are supposed to do, and when they are supposed to do it. That way it doesn't take an order from the Fleet Admiral, or from the Secretary of Defense or from the White House to get an active response started.

John Paul Jones knew about the art of maneuver - so did Chester Nimitz and Bull Halsey. What would they say if they saw the USS Hopper fail to pass the paper tiger test? Asymmetric warfare, on land or sea, requires that we develop some new skills, new equipment, new options, and new ways of thinking. A decade has gone by since the USS Cole. The Navy hasn't fixed anything. Too bad somebody didn't tell them about flashbang grenades for perimeter defense very shortly after the USS Cole incident - well, actually, somebody did.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail./

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