U.S. Navy’s Farsi Island incident report: Horrifying breakdown of morale, operational discipline?

U.S. Navy’s Farsi Island incident report: Horrifying breakdown of morale, operational discipline?
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If what’s being reported is true, your Navy is in big trouble.

(Or, as Donald Trump would say, big, big trouble.  YUUGE.)

CNN has a summary, posted Tuesday, from the first Navy report on the 12 January incident with Iran near Farsi Island.  It doesn’t give me a warm-fuzzy that this report took seven weeks (and was probably forwarded officially by the Defense Department only because John McCain demanded to see something by 1 March, otherwise he was going to subpoena the sailors and their chain of command to appear before the Senate).  Even granting the freighted politics of such a report, the scope of this event wasn’t so big that it should have taken that long.

Moreover, if what CNN has reported is what the Navy really thinks happened, there was little to analyze or investigate other than the actions of the boat crews and their chain of command.  The whole thing was the fault of those players – players who behaved in a preposterously un-Navy-like manner.

If the Navy report alluded to is a truthful reflection of what happened, a number of people need to be relieved of their positions – starting with the president and the secretary of defense.  Have they really allowed our military to sink into such an appalling state?

Consider just this passage from the CNN report:

According to the report, the sailors originally set out from Kuwait for Bahrain but quickly — and unknowingly — went off course and headed almost directly for Iran’s Farsi Island in the middle of the Persian Gulf.

The report found that several factors may have contributed to the failure:

– The sailors had never made the trip before.

– They had been up most of the night before conducting maintenance on one of the boats that had broken down.

– They had to “cannibalize” parts from a third boat in order to have two working vessels.

– They then experienced problems with their satellite communications gear.

All of this led them to leaving port later than planned.

In addition, they did not conduct a standard operational briefing for themselves prior to setting sail, during which they would have had fully reviewed their route and navigation plan.

The approved navigation path would have had them sail in international waters between the Iranian coastline and the eastern side of Farsi Island as they moved south toward Bahrain. Instead, they were significantly off course, sailing on the western side of the island.

The report also indicated that the sailors were not aware of Farsi Island’s location. They instead believed a small Saudi island was the navigation feature they were supposed to be sailing around.

As the sailors unknowingly approached the Iranian island, they had already missed one scheduled check-in phone call with their command center, and the command center for some reason did not notice that the tracking equipment on board had them headed for Iranian waters.

It goes on for a few more sentences, but you get the gist.

Never made the trip before, yet didn’t have an ops brief before the trip, and didn’t know where Farsi Island was?  It’s hard to adequately convey how astounding this is.  (Were they beamed in at the last minute from another galaxy?  Seriously, how could any special ops sailor who’d been in the Gulf more than a week not know where Farsi Island was?)

Then we read that they failed to check in with the command center, and yet the command center, in contravention of reason, unvarying practice, and every naval instinct, “for some reason” failed to notice where they were.  (A piece of information that is updated to the automated ops display in the command center every few seconds.)

Not one word of that explanation could be read aloud in a moderate tone of voice, without expletives, by the lowliest fresh-milled petty officer.

What is outlined by CNN just doesn’t happen, unless the breakdown of service-wide discipline is colossal.  Start with the idea that the crew of these little boats set off on their unusual trip whenever the heck they got around to it, after multiple equipment breakdowns, with no sleep and without an ops brief, and their chain of command seemingly didn’t know any of this, didn’t know that it didn’t know, and/or didn’t care.  (Otherwise, it should have done some things very differently.)

I’d throw the BS flag on that account out of hand.  I might pick the flag back up if I walked into the command center and saw everyone in it either dead or OD’ing on heroin.  Maybe you have to have been in the Navy to understand how absurd and impossible this all sounds.  The inattention from the chain of command is simply inexplicable.

Consider: these boats, capable as they are, can’t defend themselves against a small-boat swarm, if there are only two of them.  There was good reason, after Iran’s extremely provocative actions in the previous three weeks (see here also), to be concerned about what the Iranians might do if they encountered the boats anywhere at sea.

And in open water, as opposed to a riverine environment, the boats’ self-exfiltration preparations – e.g., one towing the other – need to be supplemented quickly by support from larger vessels.  One of the boats had already had to have emergency repairs.  The merest prudence would have ensured that their transit from Kuwait to Bahrain, via the long route north around Farsi Island, was accompanied by frequent check-ins from air assets (at the very least) that were monitoring their trip as a patrol assignment that day.

The chain of command (Commander, Task Force 56) would have made that arrangement (and if I can think of it, how much more would an experienced special operator or riverine boat driver think of it?).  Yet it must not have been done – unless the maritime patrol assets were also surreally inattentive, unaware, and unresponsive to tasking.

This is just one of many things that make no sense in the reported content of the Navy assessment.  Frankly, I don’t find it credible. If we’re to believe it, we have to believe that discipline has broken down in the Navy to a fatal degree, one that there is no graceful recovery from.  Nothing I’ve outlined here or in previous posts is a heroic level of operational performance; it would be minimum acceptable performance by the boat crews and their chain of command.

Did they truly fail so shockingly to meet a minimum acceptable standard?  We may never know.  One last point.  The CNN report describes thus how the officer in charge came to make his on-camera apology:

Eventually, all 10 were taken into a large room also seen in a video, and given food. At this point they were told by the Iranians to “act happy” for the camera, the U.S. official said.

The sailors said they argued back and told the Iranians they wouldn’t do it. At that point the lieutenant, the senior U.S. person there, said he was sorry for the error in order to defuse the situation, the official said.

I find that very hard to believe.  I continue to think it’s much more likely that the State Department told the lieutenant to make the apology.  The opportunity for that would have come during the negotiations with Iran, when a State Department official was probably allowed to speak to the lieutenant on the phone.

It would be nice to think Senator McCain might get to the bottom of this.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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