One of the unusual things about this incident is that it apparently took place in the Gulf of Aden: the area off Somalia and Yemen where a multinational force of warships has been conducting antipiracy operations since late 2008.
This is a move further afield for Iranian skullduggery at sea. Until now, reported challenges by Iran to U.S. Navy platforms have been mounted in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. It’s a new set-out – at least in terms of what’s been publicly reported – for an Iranian ship to behave provocatively with the U.S. Navy in the Gulf of Aden. If this latest incident represents a trend, it may be worse than the public knows.*
The basic report is that on 25 July, the Iranian ship, the frigate Alvand (F-71), pointed a manned, crew-served weapon – apparently a deck-mounted machine gun – at a “coalition vessel” and then at a MH-60R Seahawk helicopter operating from USS Farragut (DDG-99). (Farragut is an Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyer, deployed to the CENTCOM theater with the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) Strike Group.)
The Alvand was about 200 yards from the coalition vessel (described as an auxiliary) at the time of the incident. The gun-pointing lasted about one minute.
The Iranian frigate aimed manned weapons at a U.S. helicopter practicing landings on a coalition vessel being accompanied by the USS Farragut in the Gulf of Aden on July 25, Navy spokesman Lt. Timothy Hawkins told Fox News. The Gulf is located in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia.
“We characterize this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional,” Hawkins told Fox News.
According to the Navy, an Iranian crewman was present behind the weapon taking video of the event.
“Were they just trying to get cool pictures pointing at us? Were they making a propaganda film? Was some guy taking pictures to send to his girlfriend? We don’t know,” the Defense official said.
We can discount the “taking pictures for the girlfriend” hypothesis. The Iranians aren’t stupid or undisciplined in that manner.
They do, however, like to make propaganda videos in which they pretend to be out there kicking the U.S. Navy around. That possibility is not to be discounted – although they seem likely to have used their footage from 25 July by now, if that was the intention.
They may also have been testing our reaction to provocation. Make no mistake, as the POTUS-in-Chief likes to say: this was a serious provocation. Both the coalition vessel and the helicopter were well within the range of a .50-cal machine gun (presumably the weapon used to target them) at the time of the incident. With a .50-cal, there is no other clue you need that the other ship is about to start shooting at you. Under longstanding principles of self-defense, as captured in the U.S. rules of engagement, both the coalition vessel and the Farragut’s helo had justification for considering themselves under imminent threat.
We can be glad that this incident didn’t escalate. But we should also ask ourselves what the Iranians think they learned from it.
An interesting coda to this event occurred, apparently on the next day, 26 July. An image was posted on the USS Farragut Facebook page of an F/A-18 Super Hornet conducting a close pass by the ship. The Facebook post refers to this as “another pass” by a Super Hornet.
The date of the F/A-18 fly-bys isn’t specified, but Farragut‘s habit appears to be posting images quickly. Perhaps this was part of an already scheduled exercise with planes from the USS Theodore Roosevelt air wing. Theodore Roosevelt herself was in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, a few days before, hosting change of command ceremonies for her captain and the commander of Carrier Strike Group 12. The carrier most likely remained in the Gulf after that, meaning a detachment of her aircraft may have been forward deployed to Djibouti for some reason.
It’s also possible that the F/A-18 fly-by took place off the coast of Oman, with Farragut headed from the Gulf of Aden toward the Strait of Hormuz. In that case, the Super Hornets could have operated out of Oman. U.S. Navy air wing aircraft occasionally use bombing ranges in both Oman and Djibouti during CENTCOM deployments.
In either case, the appearance of F/A-18s to operate with Farragut the day after the gun-pointing incident could send, shall we say, a desirable signal. That would be if the Iranians were there to witness it. (If the F/A-18 fly-bys were conducted in the Gulf of Aden, Alvand was probably still there in the area.)
That said, all this cheap provocation and goosing – known in the trade as “half-a**ery” – is starting to look more and more like the coast of Vietnam during the Johnson/McNamara era.
* The CNN report about the incident with USS Farragut’s helicopter refers to additional recent encounters when Iranian ships approached too closely and had to be warned off with blasts from the ships’ horns of U.S. Navy ships. No information was given on where those encounters took place. It sounds like an increase in the number of incidents, if there was more than one since the beginning of this year.