Today we learned that Iran is the latest nation to lean-in early in its testing of the president-elect. On Sunday, Iranian speedboats made for the USS Mahan in the Persian Gulf, and things became dicey enough that the Mahan actually locked, cocked, and fired off warning shots. This sort of event falls generally under the realm of "Rules of Engagement," and more specifically beneath the subset of actions known as "Escalation of Force." In other words, these are the instructions for when you can shoot, where you can shoot, and, in some cases, how you can shoot.
Baghdad, Iraq, was not the easiest place to travel when I was there from 2005 to 2006. One stretch of road, which I took on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, was a particular problem. Known to journalists (and therefore most other people) as the "Highway of Death," Route Irish had the dubious distinction of being the bit of roadway most likely to result in contact. This, of course, made our turret gunners particularly inclined to fire sooner rather than later. At the same time, we were beginning to appreciate that more gunfire was not necessarily the solution. It came down to some split-second decisions-life-and-death decisions-that the youngest soldiers we had on hand had to be make.
How do you warn a driver coming up fast from behind on the highway that he was getting too close? We learned that a distressing number of those drivers were just clueless when they were approaching, and not actually VBIEDs-Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, or car bombs. Water bottles were the first, crude, solution. Tossed from the turret-ring of a Humvee towards a vehicle, they were a start, however lame, at a solution short of pulling a trigger. But how far can you throw a water bottle? There was also a distance-to-threat mismatch.
Around mid-to-late '05, a new idea, simple in the extreme, bubbled up from the ranks and quickly spread. My unit and several others I knew traveled Route Irish adopted it quickly: Ping-pong balls. You can laugh, but there are people, innocent Iraqis, who are alive now because of that simple solution. You didn't want an unknown vehicle closing within 100 meters from behind, but the water bottles we were using might just fly a dozen yards and hit the ground and go unnoticed. Toss 20 or 30 ping-pong balls behind you, though, and the white bouncing wave of balls would often grab that driver's attention-and fast.
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That meant that the gunner did not need to follow normal Escalation of Force: firing into the air (bullets always come down somewhere, remember); firing into the ground ahead of the vehicle; firing into the engine block; and finally, when all else failed, firing into the passenger compartment.
On the ocean, you have a few ways to communicate your intent. The first, and most obvious, is via radio communications. But radio comms do not always work, even under the best of circumstances. Another way to signal to other vessels within visual range is by changing your heading. Altering your course, dramatically, shows the guy coming towards you that you want to avoid a close pass-let alone a collision. Of course, you do that in conjunction with continued efforts to call on the radio, in case they are not listening or their radio is broken.
That presumes two things: One, that the oncoming vessel(s) are not military (military vessels are always supposed to monitor their radios), and two, that they do not actually intend to attack you. It gets dicey when a military vessel from a national military force deliberately ignores both of the first two levels of signaling and heads straight at you.
That is where, according to these initial reports, the USS Mahan found itself yesterday in the Straits of Hormuz. The ROE and the Escalation of Force came into sharp focus in the space of minutes as these Iranian speedboats closed within 900 meters. If the Iranians were moving parallel, the USN has repeatedly demonstrated that 500 meters, or even 300, isn't necessarily too close. The Mahan's opening fire suggests more of a "directly at you" approach by the Iranians. Particularly since it appears that the Mahan did attempt the naval equivalent of ping-pong balls-by deploying the onboard helicopter, which launched aerial flares-while the Iranians were further out.
We can probably expect a lot more of this in the coming months, in a variety of ways.
As always, I can be reached at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.
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