Last Monday a very interesting and historic event occurred in the Persian Gulf when the USNS Rappahannock fired a 50 caliber machine at a small boat that ignored all warnings and continued to approach. There were injuries on the small craft and at least one person was killed.
I can not recall any similar incident at sea, at least since Vietnam, where a Navy ship fired on a suspected terrorist attacker. There can be no doubt that the procedures carried out were motivated not only by current tensions in the Middle East but by awareness of the devastating attack by a small boat on the USS Cole twelve years ago, an attack that nearly destroyed a fighting ship of the fleet. It was the naval equivalent of a road-side bomb, albeit on a very large and expensive target.
I have been retired from the U.S. Navy now for almost 31 years. (Seems hard to believe.) There have been numerous changes in that time, more than I realized when the Rappahannock incident motivated me to do some research. Back in the day, Navy ships designated “USNS” were part of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), something that was renamed the Military Sealift Command (MSC) in 1970. As such, they were civilian-operated and Navy-owned, but were not commissioned fighting ships, which are titled “U.S.S.” for United States Ship. They were lumbering freight and bulk carriers of various kinds. In that time, there were also a good many “auxiliary” ships in the commissioned category, stores ships, oilers, and the like, and those invariably carried some kind of armament, often one or more 5″ or 40mm guns for self defense. A lot of that changed in the 1970′s, motivated by the need to cut costs in the era of the more expensive all-volunteer military. Trials with civilian crews showed that they could perform at-sea ship-to-ship replenishments of supplies, fuel and ammunition. The MSC page of Wikipedia indicates the new MSC system performed well during the Persian Gulf War when more than 12 million tons of materiel were delivered.
Although MSC ships are still considered civilian-manned, it isn’t clear to me whether their CO’s are commissioned officers or not. USNS Rappahannock is a double-hulled at-sea replenishment oiler. You will note from her excellent picture in the CNN article the absence of any gun turrets. (Looks to me like that pic was taken during a Panama Canal transit.) Also interesting but not really surprising is that the people manning the 50 caliber gun in the incident were termed a “security team”. That peaks my curiosity, but so far I have not found any more about their nature. I’m wondering if it might be a civilian contractor group like the Blackwater people ashore in Iraq. Regardless though, the Somali pirates really ought to think twice before going after one of these gray vessels.
The MSC strategy makes a lot of sense to me in this day and age. The Cold War is over, and the possibility of a nation-against-nation war at sea seems inconceivable. After all, we have a global economy attended even by China and Russia, and the United States Navy, modeled still with Cold War designs, dominates the oceans with satellite surveillance and powerful weapons. In fact, I was bowled over when I followed a link I got from, of all people, Rachel Maddow, and found that the locations of virtually the whole world’s merchant and private vessels over 299 tons are now public knowledge available in real time on the internet! When I first saw the site, my reaction was, wow, what a great resource for pirates! However, the system can be turned off at will and you will note that there are no ship positions recorded near Somalia. Go figure.
The system is all tied together under an international organization and was initiated in the interest of providing an additional layer of protection against collisions at sea. They have since found, according to their FAQ page, many additional benefits in statistical analysis, scheduling applications, management and the like.
The site is fun to play with and I find the openness of the information blows me away. The system is called AIS and it works with ship-to-ship radio, tying
in GPS and other navigation systems. How it up-links to the world-wide information system isn’t clear to me, but it does. You will see too, I think, just how busy the seas are. It’s a jungle out there, lots of fat targets to blow up, especially in busy places like the Persian Gulf. Rappahannock’s threat was a false one, but I think it’s just a matter of time before a real one shows up. From the account so far, I think the Navy took the only action it could. Terrorists beware! Some of those fat targets have stingers.