The Shat-el-Arab incident: Bluff or Coercion

Colonel David Eshel

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Royal Marines Boarding Party  riding a Rubber  Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB)The Middle East, for decades the traditional cradle for spreading "sabre rattling" rumors, has once again become the focal point of war drums as both sides, Tehran and Washington are flexing the muscles with threatening moves.

Russian intelligence has spread "reliable" information from its so-called regional intelligence sources, that 'the U.S. Armed Forces have nearly completed preparations for a possible military operation against Iran, and will be ready to strike in early April', a security official claimed last Friday. The 'source' warned that the US Navy had already compiled a list of possible targets on Iranian territory and practiced the operation during last week's exercises in the Persian Gulf. If the Russian predictions are correct, at least one has not too long to wait in high tension until the bludgeon falls! With the powerful build-up of a huge US and French naval armada deployed in the turbulent Persian Gulf, anything can happen at any moment.

Map showing the disputed location of the boarding parties and HMS Cornwall, according to British and Iranian sources. (UK MOD Map)
Location of the  Shatt el Arab  and El-Faw peninsula area, where the incident took place. (Google Earth)
Captured Royal Marine shows the location of the incident on Iranian TV .The spark, which could light the fuse, was provided already on March 23 in the strategic Shat-el-Arab, one of history's most sensitive focal points. Although the present tension did not start with the capture of the 15 British sailors in the Shat-el-Arab waterways, it seems a strange coincidence from a military professional viewpoint, that the Brits actually went into the trap. Was the capture of the Royal Navy boarding party a well orchestrated setup where the Iranians had been hoping a ship would be boarded and sprung the trap when the Brits came abroad? Or did the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have inside information that the freighter could have been carrying supplies for Shia insurgents and the vessel was being boarded when the Iranians may have decided the contents were worth protecting and launched their ambush on the sailors?

the normal operational procedure for a Royal Navy boarding party, should be to place themselves in position to render covering and supporting fire, should the operation escalate, before or after the boarding party is located on the inspected vessel.

The serious incident, which has not been solved sofar, but already threatens to escalate further as each side is hardening its position, could bring this already highly explosive region onto the verge of a real war. But Friday March 23 hi-jacking was not the first involving British seamen: In 2004 eight British sailors were captured by Iranian commandos near the very same area, but they were quickly released at that time. Could it be that Iranian president Ahmadinejad wishes to retaliate the equally embarrassing and still mysterious disappearance of his top general Ali Reza Asgari, who vanished into thin air two months ago?

HMS Cornwall
From the British side, the Royal Navy also took the unusual step of making public charts, photographs and previously secret navigational coordinates purportedly proving that the British sailors were 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they were apprehended at gun-point and forced into Iranian waters. Information contained in the Cornwall's Xeres computer tracking system pinpoints the two boarding boats' precise location when the sailors were detained. This allows the mother ship to store and update the position of each boarding party from up to 10 miles away. It seems highly likely the Iranians are aware the boats were in Iraqi territorial waters. "Tracking devices showed that their exact location was nowhere near Iranian territorial waters", Royal Navy sources said.

But there are some highly intriguing military issues pondering over the 23rd March incident.

Picture shows GPS location of the incident, as seen from a Royal Navy helicopter over the merchant vessel after the event (UK MOD Photo)Based on the publicly available data, which may well be incomplete, at this stage, the Royal Navy boarding party (BP) were doing a standard 'boarding and check' operation on a freighter inside Iraqi waters when the IRGC appeared, out of nowhere, in half a dozen attack speedboats, taking the Brits completely by surprise. Without a shot fired by either side, the British sailors went into captivity. From a sheer military standpoint, it seems totally irrelevant, whether the party was on the Iraqi or Iranian "thalweg" which divides the waterway. What should be examined is how a fully armed boarding party manned by experienced Royal Marine Commandos let themselves be taken without a fight, while their mothership and a hovering helicopter were within sight, or at least should have been? As already mentioned, we are not party to classified data, which could perhaps shed some light on this incident, but from what we gather from information, sofar made available, here are some distinct questions which should be raised:

- According to our knowledge, the normal operational procedure for a Royal Navy boarding party, (and for that matter any other such operational party) should be to place themselves in position to render covering and supporting fire, should the operation escalate, before or after the boarding party is located on the inspected vessel. Mission of the covering party is to observe the surrounding area, against intruding hostile elements, clearly aware that the thalweg is not far away (the entire width of the Shat-el-Arab at this point varies only up to half a mile) and to its east, all territory must at least be regarded as hostile to British naval presence. Even if according to UK MOD published charts the incident took place outside of the Shat-el-Arab mouth, warning should have come even earlier, as the speedboats approached the open sea. Was it complacency, due to previous attempts by IRGC, which did not materialize into action, which are the cause? It is well known, that Iran does not acknowledge coalition presence in Iraq, certainly not its operations in the disputed Shat-el-Arab waterway.

- The authorities claim, that the IRGC speedboats were armed with machine guns. In this respect, one has to point to the fact, that the British Zodiac Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) used by the RN boarding party are capable of over 30 knots and are armed with shipboard mounted GPMGs (General Purpose Machine Guns), by all means a formidable weapon and not to mention the party's personal weapons, which should have been brought into action by the covering party, against the approaching IRGC, or at least warning these, before coming into range.

- As to supporting elements: one may enquire as to what distance the boarding party was from its supporting elements, when boarding the suspect vessel. According to standard procedure, due to effective weapon ranges, the BP distance should not exceed 1,800 meters from the supporting elements, which in this particular case were the party's mother ship HMS Cornwall, a type 22 Frigate bristling with formidable firepower and sophisticated electronics and its Lynx helicopter, which should have been observing from above.

- If the operation went according to standard operations procedure, then either the ship's radar or the helicopter crew must have detected a hostile party of no less than six speedboats going at full power and heading straight towards the thalweg divide. This would have alerted the boarding party, to call off their mission, either take evasive action by speeding towards the mothership, or at least opening warning fire from on-board weapons to head off the attackers as they passed the thalweg divide. For the sake of operational argument, it must seem totally irrelevant if the boarding party was on the east or west side of the thalweg divide at the time of the incident. Another option could have been for the boarding party commander, when alerted and assessing the situation, to try and evade capture by using his boat's speed to escape into the supporting range of the Cornwall. A claim that part of the BP was already aboard the inspected vessel, should only emphasize the importance of the supporting elements under such conditions, to either warn the BP commander to abort mission immediately or take up firing positions before the hostile boats come within range. In an extreme case, the Cornwall could have fired warning shots to head off the attackers if they persisted in closing in on the boarding party. Unfortunately, as it seems, neither options were in force and 15 Brits went into the bag without a shot being fired on either side.

Sofar no explanation has been offered over this deeply embarrassing incident by an authoritative source in Britain. Neither the coalition task force commander Commodore Nick Lambert, nor Commander Jeremy Woods of the Cornwall were allowed to elaborate, although a BBC reporter Ian Pannell, was actually on the ship's deck during the incident.
No wonder then that rumors are circulating among analysts and pseudo-experts claiming that all went wrong on that fateful day. Some even point out that lately naval operations seem to hit a new low, reminding of the embarrassing incident on Friday July 14 when Hezbollah fired a Chinese C-802 missile which hit the Israeli Navy Saar-5 missile boat off Beirut. Then, as reported, the ship's electronics and defense systems were switched off and only by sheer miracle this excellent ship was saved from sinking.

A similar event nearly forty years ago can clearly demonstrate what criminal complacency can cause. Just before sunset on October 21st 1967 the Israeli Navy destroyer Eilat ( formerly HMS Zealous) was sunk by an Egyptian Russian made Styx anti-ship missile while patrolling 14 miles off Port Said. Following some successful naval operations against the Egyptian Navy in this area during the Six Day war in June 1967, there was heightened complacency among Israeli naval officers, who ordered the ponderous destroyer to continue patrolling within sight of the Egyptian defenses. The deadly ambush was not long in waiting. Suddenly, some strange fiery rockets were fired straight at the ship from Port Said Harbor, which were not understood, as such weapons had never been encountered. Within seconds four Styx missiles sank the Eilat. It became a seismic event in modern naval warfare, as for the first time, a naval battle was decided, not by guns or torpedoes, but a new weapon, totally unknown to sailors.

Was the combat situation on HMS Cornwall on March 23 similar? One should only hope that the navies of both nations have learnt the lessons of their serious misconducts and should war erupt in the Gulf, operations will go forth on a smoother, more professional standard.

Read David Eshel's past commentary here

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