By John E. Carey
Commander, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Peace and Freedom Group
Watching reports of British sailors and marines taken prisoner by Iran evokes many reactions in me. First, my heart goes out to the families who know their sons and daughter, brothers and sister, are in harms way.
I am also wondering what is going through the mind of Cdr. Nick Lambert, Royal Navy. Nick is the commanding officer of HMS Cornwall. Those are his sailors and marines in the hands of the Iranians.
I may have a unique perspective on the small boat operations ongoing in the Persian Gulf, having served as both a boarding officer leading sailors on these missions and also having served as the commanding officer of a ship conducting these missions.
As Operation Desert Storm wound down in 1991, the United Nations authorized the boarding and search of ships coming to or departing Iraq. The United Nations authorized allied countries to search for prohibited items the allies deemed inappropriate material for the Saddam regime.
In 1991, several allied Navy units were engaged in these boardings and searches both in the Persian Gulf and in the Red Sea. I participated in several very large ship boardings which included sailors and marines from France, Spain and other nations.
Today, the Naval units are preventing arms and explosives from getting to the terrorists in Iraq by sea.
A typical boarding operation looks something like this:
–The UN authorized ship hails by radio the ship to be boarded, states its intention to board, and instructs the ship to be boarded to stop. The radio channel between the ships is kept open so that there can be complete understanding and back and forth communications whenever necessary.
–The boarding party of the Navy warship receives last minute instructions including a briefing on safety and rules of engagement.
–The boarding party is dispatched from the Navy ship and kept in constant communications and eyesight of the “mother ship.”
–The commanding officer of the Navy warship maneuvers to provide continuous eyesight to his boarding unit and to be in a position to provide covering fire into the ship to be boarded should there be resistance or gunfire from the ship to be boarded.
–Once aboard the ship to be inspected, the boarding officer reads that part of the the U.N. resolution governing his mission to the master of the boarded ship.
In the case of the HMS Cornwall, this procedure may have been less rigid than in the boarding of a large tanker or merchant ship; as much of the sea traffic in the Shatt al Arab is comprised of dhows.
A dhow is a traditional Arab trading craft usually limited in size to about 40-100 feet and motor or sail powered. Boarding this kind of smaller vessel may cause the boarding party to be less diligent and watchful because when boarding a large merchant ship the boarding party could easily face dozens of men with arms, concealed within the ship and ready to resist. When approaching a dhow, the boarding party can see into the vessel and more rapidly and accurately assess the number of men embarked.
Mr. Jack Kelly wrote about this particular incident and the British Rules Of Engagement (ROE) (see link at the end of this essay).