The Navy has released its report on the January incident that resulted in 14 sailors being captured and detained by Iran, after a patrol boat suffered a mechanical failure and drifted into hostile waters.
Calling the assessment “devastating” might be an understatement. From CNN:
“This incident was the result of failed leadership at multiple levels from the tactical to the operational,” investigators wrote in the detailed, partially redacted, report.
The report found the crews were poorly prepared, their boats not properly maintained, communication almost entirely lacking, and their conduct after being captured by the Iranians wasn’t up to military standards.
In a stunning finding, the report said the sailors veered off course almost immediately after heading out to sea and had no idea where they were when a mechanical failure struck one of the boats.
“The boat crews could visually see Farsi Island, but were not concerned as they were unaware that it was Iranian or that they were in Iranian waters,” the report said.
The report details a lax culture for U.S. Navy sailors who routinely patrol the Persian Gulf which ultimately led to a highly embarrassing incident for the U.S. military just as crippling economic sanctions were set to be lifted as part of the Iranian nuclear deal.
“The culture … (was) characterized by informality. They conducted no patrol briefings, and missions were supported by no formal mission analysis, standard planning factors, risk assessment, or overwatch,” investigators wrote.
And, a number of sailors will pay the price for those mistakes. Captain Kyle Moses, the commodore in charge of the task force that included the patrol boats and crews, was dismissed from his post and has been recommended to face non-judicial punishment, which will end his career. The commodore who led the patrol squadron at the time of the incident has also been fired and will face sanctions as well. According to Navy Times, at least seven other sailors, officer and enlisted, are also expected to receive punishment for their actions in the incident.
The Navy’s final report paints a picture of a unit with little discipline that was completely unprepared for a 250-mile transit from Kuwait to Bahrain. Crew members on the two boats did not recall seeing the mandatory, written patrol briefing before departure, and investigators believe it was never prepared. The report also found that the crew was never familiarized with the region, and didn’t know about weather, geography or potentially hostile threats–fundamental knowledge for any personnel preparing to go in harm’s way.
Equally damming is the Navy’s assessment of the sailors’ conduct after being capture:
The report found that during the 24 hours they were held some crew provided more information to their Iranian captors than they should have, and that they ate food while being filmed — something they should not have done because it can be and was used as propaganda. One crew member disobeyed a direct order, the report said.
Asked by their captors how it was possible a boat like theirs could have traveled such a distance, one sailor replied, “Yeah, I wish you could tell my people that because we told them these boats don’t do that” — a statement investigators said was inappropriate.
But to no one’s surprise, the Navy inquiry also leaves many questions unanswered. We posed many of these back in January, shortly after the crews were captured, detained and and released. A few points worth re-examining:
The most direct route from Kuwait to Bahrain is along the western side of the Persian Gulf; Farsi Island is more centrally located. If the boats were following a direct route, they must have drifted for some time before reaching the Iranian-controlled island. If only one vessel was affected by the engineering casualty, why didn’t the second boat take it under tow? Why weren’t additional assets–including airpower–dispatched by 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain? The presence of Navy helicopters and F/A-18s overhead might have caused the Iranians to think twice.
And what about distress calls from the [Swedish-built] CB-90s to Navy command elements? Early reports suggested the Navy “lost track” of its assets. Perhaps someone can explain why the vast surveillance assets of the United States Navy couldn’t maintain radio and/or radar contact with a pair of patrol boats–or provide warning of Iranian activity. Major surface combatants (along with airborne assets) give the Navy an impressive SIGINT capability on the high seas; assuming we were tracking Iranian activities, it would be nice to know what information commanders had as the episode unfolded and how it impacted their decision-making.
There are also issues involving the commander of the boat element, believed to be the junior officer who issued the on-camera apology. Why did he offer no resistance when the Iranians began boarding his craft. Article II of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct states “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they have the means to resist.” A CB-90 is heavily armed, with .50-caliber machine guns, GAU-19 mini guns and individual weapons for the crew. Obviously, no officer wants to see his command slaughtered; on the other hand, would it have been possible for the crew to resist, particularly with air support?
According to the Navy report, the crews of the two patrol boats had no idea where they were. That admission is stunning in the GPS era, but let’s assume for a second (as some intel analysts have suggested) that Iran was jamming that navigation system at the time. Whatever happened to old-fashioned navigation, using the sun, stars, charts and a sextant. The junior officer in charge of the boats is an Annapolis grad; at last report, midshipmen were required to take courses in navigation and master the operation of small craft before graduation (emphasis ours). Perhaps the Naval Academy ought to ask for their diploma back.
Likewise, many service members (current and former) are scratching their heads over the crew’s willingness to cooperate with their Iranian captors. That raises serious questions about the level and frequency of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training provided to riverine crews. Most naval personnel who go into harm’s way (aviators, SEALs, special warfare small craft operators and EOD teams) receive specialized training in those critical skills. Based on the video released by Iran–and the Navy report–the patrol craft crews captured in January either didn’t receive that training, or forgot everything they learned at SERE school. One Navy contact suggested that riverine crews are only required to complete an on-line SERE course, despite the fact they operate in hostile waters and may be subject to capture by the enemy. If that report is accurate, it is a damning indictment of Navy leadership and its training system.
And senior commanders–above the task force and squadron level–should also be criticized for their reaction to the incident. Back in January, reports suggested the Navy commanders somehow “lost track” of the two patrol craft; indeed, the just-released report suggests that a control element assigned to keep tabs on the transit failed to perform its mission, and had no idea the boats were drifting into hostile waters.
But that explanation only goes so far. Fact is, the U.S. Navy has impressive surveillance and intelligence collection capabilities in the Persian Gulf, for obvious reasons. As the Iranians began to react to the patrol boats approaching Farsi Island, there was radio chatter between command elements and IRCG vessels assigned to the intercept. That activity was almost certainly detected and reported by SIGINT assets afloat and ashore–and quickly relayed to 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain. The sudden spike in radio chatter provided an early indication that something was unfolding, and should have spurred additional efforts to determine what the Iranians were after, and the potential presence of allied assets in the area.
Then, there is this little nugget, which attracted little attention six months ago. It suggests that the USS Harry Truman battle group was in the early stages of mounting a response as the situation developed:
The “maneuvering” was likely a turn into the wind, a prelude to launching air operations. But we can’t find any mention of that in the Navy report. Was it a mere coincidence, or (taking a page out of the Benghazi playbook), did someone issue a “standdown” order, deciding it was too late to provide assistance. Clarification of the Truman’s tasking during those critical minutes is something Congress should demand, along with details of communications between the carrier battle group, 5th Fleet Headquarters and senior officials in Washington, D.C.
And there’s another important element that deserves a more detailed explanation. In mid-May, Virginia Congressman Randy Forbes said details about Iran’s treatment of the captured sailors would “shock” the nation. Mr. Forbes, who recently lost his primary for re-election, said information about the sailors ordeal was provided in a classified military briefing and he encouraged other members of Congress to view the presentation as well. To date, the Obama Administration has refused to disclose the details of that briefing and Congressman Forbes suggests it may be a year–or longer–before the information is released.
Mr. Forbes is one of the leading defense experts on Capitol Hill and not given to rash remarks, so there is no reason to doubt the veracity of his account. Obviously, if sailors were watching their comrades being subjected to mock executions (or similar tactics), it would influence their behavior before the enemy, particularly if they lacked the proper SERE training. But we may not know what really happened to those sailors until after Team Obama leaves office. In the interim, those nine sailors will likely see their careers come to an end, and the Navy will (hopefully) make the training, operational and maintenance changes needed to prevent similar incidents in the future.
But we still haven’t learned the full story of what transpired near Farsi Island back in January. And the rest of those details may be a long time coming.